Let's start with a few numbers: last year, Stanford had 44,073 applicants for 2,050 spaces. That's an acceptance rate of 4.65 percent. Harvard had 39,506 applicants for 2,056 places, or a 5.2 percent acceptance rate. And Yale? A little under 7 percent

Nancy Koehn, Harvard Business School historian and author, most recently, of "Forged In Crisis," says that as income inequality has grown and wages have largely stagnated, more and more young people have looked to college educations, especially at elite schools, as the only way to move up the socioeconomic ladder.

"There are now a number of schools ... that are perceived by a lot of people as being very important chutes for young people to push themselves forward and their socioeconomic prospects upward," Koehn said.

"As other opportunities have shrunk, the college chute — the four-year college chute, particularly the elite college chute — has gotten more and more attractive," she continued.

At the same time, however, the college application process has become more and more inscrutable, with colleges expecting, as Eric Hoover writes in the New York Times, "a maddening mishmash of competing objectives."

"There's incredible pressure — on students, on parents, on admissions counselors in high school — to get kids into great schools," Koehn said.

Click the audio player above to hear more from Nancy Koehn.