This article on "why students want to go to Harvard" is interesting, but the headline is misleading; the research contrasts the 71 schools characterized as "most competitive" by Barron's with those labeled "competitive." There are two levels in between, "very" and "highly" competitive." In other words, it's not why-Harvard-and-not-Duke; it's why-Centre-and-why-not-U-Tennessee.
I assume the author didn't write his own headline, of course. But this struck a chord with something I've been thinking about lately. I'm at Vanderbilt, which US News considers to be 17th in the nation. It's not even in contention to beat Harvard, but nevertheless it is an excellent university. My alma mater, by contrast, is now ranked #41. (Which is lower than when I was there, something no alumni want to see.)
Some of the differences between the school are superficial (more pearls and magnolias at Vanderbilt; it's the South, after all), and some are more significant but don't affect the quality of education (Vandy has a larger undergraduate student body). In fact, I dare say there aren't any significant differences in the quality of education at all. At that point in the university rankings, you have really bright students being taught by really bright profs with gobs of research money, and learning is going to occur.
There is one major difference between the two institutions, though, and that's the social and cultural capital in the student body. At Vandy, the students are constantly forming their own nonprofits, even their own for-profits. Later on the young alumni become entrepreneurs or get jobs in consulting or the fashion industry.
I don't see this at my alma mater. It's not just the time lag - undergrads everywhere are a lot more obsessed with internships now than they were over a dozen years ago - because the news I hear from alma mater isn't all that different from when I was there.
Students at both schools who go on to enter highly meritocratic (especially formally meritocratic) endeavors do equally well. That is, graduates who go into TFA, academia, or med school, for example, are generally successful. Students who want to do something where there isn't a formal plan, however, don't have the same kind of success. Oh, sure, alumni are living happy, productive lives and they are generally making a decent living, but they aren't able to tap into some of the same kinds of resources to propel themselves to stardom.
There is a huge cultural capital component to college, and we ignore this at our own peril. "Everyone" knows that going to college will get you a Good Job. The middle class knows that a Good College will get you a Better Life. The upper class knows that going to a Top College will let you do whatever you want to do. Why do more students want to go to Harvard today? Because more people are becoming aware of the advantages the elite schools confer, advantages that have nothing to do with their quality of education per se.