Based on analysis of an administrative dataset, which includes granular detail on 800,000 English students over a 10‐year period, this article identifies an urban ‘escalator’ effect in entry to elite universities, with disadvantaged youth in the urban centres of England having higher rates of entry than similarly disadvantaged youth located rurally. Using multilevel modelling, as well as Geographic Information System (GIS) methods, the analyses show that while place in itself is not a major contributory factor in entry to elite universities overall, there is a distinct urban–rural patterning to progression. When raw progression rates by area alone are observed, rural areas typically have higher progression rates to elite universities. However, when the full range of individual differences are accounted for, including attainment, socio‐economic status, ethnicity and accessibility to elite universities, the converse is true—localities within and surrounding major urban centres are those with the highest progression rates. A ‘vortex of influences’ is likely to favour urban disadvantaged youth, including the geography of social class and ethnic identities, a legacy of concerted policy interventions within urban areas, as well as the proliferation of widening participation activity in urban centres.