Social Class at Harvard

For all that the College has accomplished to increase socioeconomic diversity over the past few years, the topic of class itself seems to still exist primarily as an intellectual topic more than an openly discussed social reality.

I. What do you Think About Class at Harvard?

“I think Harvard hits the mark with regards to socioeconomic and racial diversity; it could be better, it could be worse”—Nicholas T. Rinehart ’14

“It’s sort of the elephant in the room”—Nelida Garcia ’14

“If you’re paying full tuition, you’re not middle class—you’re upper class”—Laura ’13

“I’ve never had an unpaid internship in my life!”—Timothy P. McCarthy ’93, history and literature lecturer

“It’s personal—you think about your own experience and don’t realize necessarily that your experience is common to a whole group of people”—Timothy Nelson, sociology lecturer

“Now that I’ve learned so much about myself, I know that I have the power, and the responsibility, to inform others about my experiences, and learn about theirs”—David E. Tebaldi ’10

“Ambition was the first thing I noticed when I came here”—Zena M. Mengesha ’14

“Just because I didn’t go to this or that high school doesn’t mean anything; I can do just as much now that I’m here”—Haley E. Adams ’15

“If people judge me for that [my class background], obviously I don’t care for them”—August A. Dao ’15

“I’m not inherently opposed to meritocracy, I’m opposed to a sham meritocracy”—Laura ’13

“The demographics of the entering class are quite different, and the opportunity to learn from people who are different has grown exponentially”—Thomas A. Dingman ’67, dean of freshmen

“Harvard is in an important symbolic position in education, but in my opinion, there’s still not much Harvard can do”—Shamus Khan, associate professor of sociology at Columbia University

“A student from the highest income quartile and the lowest aptitude quartile (as measured by standardized test scores) is as likely to be enrolled in college as a student from the lowest income quartile and the highest aptitude quartile”—Harvard Financial Aid Initiative “Shoestring Strategies for Life @ Harvard: A guide for students on a budget”

“It contributes greatly towards a man’s moral and intellectual health, to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate”—Nathaniel Hawthorne

II. A More Equal Playing Field

“That’s the first thing I noticed: food around here is really expensive,” says Nelida Garcia ’14.

Garcia, a junior sociology concentrator in Leverett House and the younger daughter of Mexican immigrants, grew up in Humboldt Park, a working class neighborhood in Chicago. As visibly drained dining hall employees in Adams quietly eat their dinners before the evening shift, Garcia, for whom sentences seem to spill out in confident, rapid-fire phrases, tells me about adjusting to Harvard Square during freshman year.

“I actually never had my own room until I came to Harvard,” she says. “The first time I went home for J-Term, suddenly, everything in my house seemed really small. I remember making some remarks to my older sister, and she was just like, ‘What happened to you?’”

Garcia, as with several other students I spoke to, had never originally intended to apply to Harvard. Her older sister, who was the first in her family to attend college and went to the University of Chicago, recommended that she apply to Harvard. Garcia’s family qualified for an application fee waiver, but she recalls that her guidance counselor at her public high school of 4,000 students was initially reluctant to support her application. A week later, Garcia came back to him and mentioned that she was preparing to apply to two more Ivy League schools.

“He just said, ‘Okay, so I see that you’re determined.’”

As with many other students, Garcia’s college decision came down to financial aid; Harvard easily beat out other competitors with its Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI) and need-blind admissions.

HFAI, first announced by former University President Larry Summers in 2004 and implemented in 2006, has enabled students from families with incomes less than $60,000 to enroll with no expected parental contribution. This number was raised to $65,000 in the fall of 2012, and according to the University’s Financial Aid website, families with incomes up to $150,000 are expected to pay 10 percent or less of their income on average. On Tuesday, the University announced an additional $10 million increase in the financial aid budget.

In addition to enabling students who formerly could not afford to attend the College, HFAI has influenced the admissions process. According to “Shoestring Budget Strategies,” an informational booklet for incoming students written by HFAI Student Coordinators during the summers of 2010 and 2011, “Harvard has reemphasized, in the context of its highly personalized admissions process, the policy of taking note of applicants who have remarkable accomplishments despite limited resources at home or in their local schools and communities.”

These adjustments to admissions policies, which help reduce the effects of socioeconomic inequalities outside the College, also complement the various policies and systems in place that seek to reduce the impact that these inequalities have on life within the College. The fact that all students enroll in the same meal plan upon entering the College, for instance, reduces the potentially exclusionary effects of tiered dining options in the Square. Similarly, the Freshman Dean’s Office seeks to limit or entirely remove the question of money when it comes to social events: “We’ve been trying to, in the events that we organize, host as many things as we can that don’t have charges. That’s the spirit behind the SIPs [Student Initiated Programming] and a number of things that we sponsor,” says Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67.

The Student Events Fund—which is jointly offered by the Financial Aid Office, Harvard Box Office, and the Office of the Dean—was started in 2002 with the assistance of the Undergraduate Council, the fund offers free tickets to qualifying students on financial aid for events ticketed through the Harvard Box Office.

But for all that the College has accomplished to increase socioeconomic diversity over the past few years, the topic of class itself seems to still exist primarily as an intellectual topic more than an openly discussed social reality.

“It’s sort of the elephant in the room,” says Garcia, who is currently enrolled in a junior sociology tutorial taught by lecturer on sociology Rachel Meyer called “Social Class in the United States: Identity, Culture, and Consciousness.” “Harvard doesn’t provide a place for students to talk about class, I feel like.”

III. Class: A Moving Target

Talking about class is difficult not only because the topic is so broad, but also because it can be difficult to know how, or in what terms, to talk about it in the first place.

“One of the problems about class in the U.S. is that we don’t often define class in the U.S.,” says history and literature lecturer Timothy P. McCarthy ’93. McCarthy mentions that he self-identified as a working class student on financial aid as an undergraduate at Harvard, and that those experiences helped shape his perspectives on the issue of class and social inequality in America. He notes that Harvard is exceptional in many respects, which can lead students to assume that most aspects of their college experience will be exceptional as well.

“Because getting into Harvard opens doors of opportunities for anyone—regardless of your socioeconomic background—I think that there is sometimes a tendency to think that because that door has been opened, there’s something of an equal playing field when you get to Harvard,” he says. “In some cases that may be true, but in other cases it’s absolutely not true.”

Garcia feels similarly, citing her own experience as a self-identified working class, urban student.

“For working class students, I think it’s easy for us to buy into the American Dream—it’s almost dangerous, in a way,” she says. “We should spend more time asking why others didn’t make it, not why we got in.”

Admittance to Harvard, according to Garcia, is at once an opportunity for self-advancement, but also requires people to confront societal limitations for those without such opportunities.

Although the equalization effect at the College does promote socialization across socioeconomic lines, it also obscures the differences in privilege that exist, making these problems perhaps less visible than students like Garcia would prefer. Awkward moments tend to happen when these differences do come—often as a result of inadvertent assumptions made about means or cultural frames of reference.

Katherine, a junior in Pforzheimer who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because she did not want her roommate’s financial status known, describes the northern Californian suburb where she was raised as “very wealthy.” She recalls a moment during her freshman year that made her acutely aware of differences in privilege.

“My roommate at the time asked me, ‘Hey, did you see that email from the Financial Aid Office?’” Katherine wasn’t sure how to bring up the fact that she was not on financial aid. “When she asked me that, I just looked at my shoes.”

Garcia shares a similar story about a friend of hers whose freshman year roommates were discussing which restaurants they hoped to sample during Boston’s Restaurant Week. Her friend simply couldn’t afford to participate in Restaurant Week, but also felt awkward breaking the news to her roommates.

These particular stories are related to a more general story, another problem which adds to the difficulty of discussing class: the perceived stigmatization of not being middle class, which is often conflated with being an average American.

“The thing that surprised me the most was that the people who I’d think of as being rich or upper class thought of themselves as middle class,” says Laura, a senior in Lowell House who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because she did not want her financial status known. “This one person who I will not identify further flew home to California for Columbus Day weekend one year,”—she begins to chuckle—“and I was just, I mean—that was so far out of my lifestyle that I was just like, ‘Oh, okay. ‘Middle class.’”

Laura, who works over 20 hours a week and sometimes up to 40 to support herself, describes herself as having been interested in questions of class for some time. It’s clear that she has strong opinions; she speaks faster than I can take down notes, with balanced, eloquently phrased thoughts that would seem more appropriate in a section for a sociology class than in a casual dining hall interview.

When I mention how little I had talked about class with friends until I began researching this story, she interrupts me to make a comment.

“It’s because—if I can just go off on my own intellectual tangent for like 15 seconds—it’s because Americans aren’t equipped to talk about class,” she argues. “We never have been; we have this myth of the classless society that makes it impossible for us to even admit the existence of class.”

In the same breath, she continues, “We don’t even have the vocabulary, the awareness in our daily conversations, to talk about class. That’s why the people who I went to high school with who are very working class people can claim themselves in the middle class and the children of stockbrokers and doctors and lawyers and professors say that they’re middle class: because we all think we’re middle class.”

What exactly constitutes middle class, with regards to income, level of education, type of job, is debatable. Unlike race or religion, self-identification on the basis of class is less precisely determined because so much of class identity is relative.

Class identity seems to be similarly downplayed at Harvard for reasons of social integration and also financial privacy, but whether or not this approach is most productive is unclear.

IV. Meritocracy

For some, what class means to your identity is directly related to how you feel about meritocracy. Jane Van Galen, a professor of education at the University of Washington, Bothell, whose research interests include social mobility through education for poor and working-class students, points out, “There’s a sense that we’re all middle class when we hear all this political rhetoric. There’s almost a stigma of identifying as working class, but that’s related to an American understanding of being responsible of your own destiny: that if you’re not middle class, then it’s your fault.”

That is, you get only what you earn and therefore deserve. Almost no students I spoke to shared this extreme view of meritocracy, but many identified problems with the assumption that America was becoming increasingly meritocratic.“I think a meritocracy is only valid if everybody starts from the same position, and we do not have a society in which everybody starts from the same positions,” Laura says.

Opinions on the notion of meritocracy as it applies to Harvard admissions influences how students view their own acceptance into the College and subsequent college experience. Haley E. Adams ’15, a cheerful, bright-eyed native of Princeton, Ill., a rural town of about 7,000, grew up on a 20-acre farm, with “a cornfield in our front yard, a bean field in our side yard, a wheat field in our backyard, and a cornfield in our side yard.” Although very few students at her high school applied to colleges out of state—and even fewer to Ivy League universities—Adams was determined to apply to Harvard.

“I truly believe that if you have the will, you can do it,” Adams says. “It’s not easy, but you have to make the admissions officers believe that you have a fire inside you.”

She emphasizes how growing up on the farm affected her worldview; she began working at age 12, picking tassels for corn and other tasks from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. during the summers. “I learned the value of hard work, and did the most with what I had.”

Other students are more skeptical about the obstacles faced by students applying to Harvard. Nicholas T. Rinehart ’14, a Crimson arts editor who grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and attended the prestigious Dalton School from ages five until 18, was preceded by four generations of Harvard alumni.

“Admissions are not a meritocracy,” he says. “It’s not the pure meritocracy it’s meant to be or will ever be.” Rinehart feels that admittance into an elite college is generally overplayed as proof of individual achievement, and notes that the College has a vested interest in producing a well-rounded class, rather than one with perfect grades. “Some people think that getting into Harvard is a measure of their worth, instead of realizing it as a total, impossible contingency—a total crapshoot,” says Rinehart. “It’s not like the best people always get in.”

But he does acknowledge the ways in which HFAI and other institutional changes have made Harvard more diverse than it had been in generations past.

“I think Harvard hits the mark with regards to socioeconomic and racial diversity; it could be better, it could be worse,” he says.

A distinct topic from the ways in which class inequality outside of Harvard affects admission is the effects of class differences within Harvard. Aside from the obscuring of class differences and the challenges of making useful identifications between lower, middle, and upper classes, another problem about class is that it has both a deeply personal dimension and a broad social dimension.

“It’s personal—you think about your own experience and don’t realize necessarily that your experience is common to a whole group of people,” says Timothy Nelson, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School who teaches a class available to undergraduates called “Class and Culture” which explores class inequality through a discussion-based approach. Another challenge, then, is to balance the attested effects of class on individual experience with distinct, generalizable group experiences that would identify the exclusionary forces in what Laura calls “the myth of a classless society.”

For legacy students, the role of class and familial background can vary.

C. Tucker Pforzheimer ’13-’14, whose shared name with a Quad House is not a coincidence, comes across as exceptionally poised and friendly. At Petsi Pies, he makes small talk with the barista as he orders his coffee, and as he waits for his beverage he clears a used mug from a nearby table. Pforzheimer seems completely open talking about his college experience, and he tells me about his gap year after his sophomore year in high school as well as his gap year after his sophomore year in college. When I ask about the role of class and socioeconomic background in his college experience, though, Pforzheimer hesitates momentarily.

“Once you’re here, I believe that you’re measured by what you’re doing here,” he says, firmly. “Class wasn’t an issue for me—it’s in the background.”

Rinehart agrees that achievement at Harvard is a priority. “Most people think that admissions into Harvard is a confirmation that you did the right things,” he says. “To me, it’s an investment—you have four years here to make it worthwhile.”

Yet the extent to which achievement for different students at Harvard is influenced as a result of socioeconomic differences is still an issue on the minds of students and faculty alike.

“I think that admittance to Harvard is kind of an opportunity to the upper class. When you graduate, you certainly have these opportunities that, no matter what your background, you didn’t have before,” says Nelson. “But that’s different than saying that everything is equal while you’re here, because people bring their backgrounds with them.”

Although the College may have policies in place that limit the role of socioeconomic class in what students can and cannot achieve, the illusion of an equal playing field produced by these policies might be just as problematic as class inequality itself.

“Absolutely there is a perception among a lot of the working students I’ve met and advised over the years that there is a relatively equal playing field because they now have an opportunity to be at a place that is elite,” says McCarthy. “I think for anybody to delude themselves into thinking that Harvard itself does not have all sorts of hierarchies and other social identities would be a problem—or is a problem.”

V. The 21st Century Elite at Harvard

“I was surprised by the class diversity,” Laura says when asked whether her interactions with peers matched the promises of diversity found throughout the Harvard admissions literature. “Maybe it’s because all the rich people keep to themselves, but all my friends are middle class, ranging from very upper-middle class to very lower-middle class.”

“I think there’s a stigma on both ends, for both the lower and upper classes,” says Garcia, pointing out that it might not necessarily be more desirable at Harvard to have inherited a famous name than to have come from modest means. (Most students with names affiliated with Harvard declined to be interviewed for this piece.)

Shamus Khan, an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University and author of “Privilege: The Making of An Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School,” distinguishes between entitlement and privilege in his ethnographic study of St. Paul’s, an elite boarding school in Concord, NH. He defines entitlement as a marker of older elite culture (“building their worlds around the ‘right’ breeding, connections, and culture”) and privilege as a marker of the contemporary developing elite (“a sense of self and a mode of interaction that advantage them”). Essentially, he makes the case that it’s less about what wealth and family background you have—who you are—and more about what you’ve accomplished, or at least made it seem like you alone accomplished.

A less obvious leveling force at Harvard is the social convention of “work talk,” which Khan observed at St. Paul’s and which I and countless Crimson op-ed writers have also observed.

“People generate these work narratives that fit within a broader American narrative, which is, ‘You get what you earn,’ rather than what you are, where you’re from,” says Khan, noting the irony that “Work in college has declined by about half since the 1960s; this isn’t just at your average college, but across the board.”

At Harvard College, although many prestigious prep schools and boarding schools are still represented every year in the admissions pool, the majority of students come from public schools. And although many students from elite secondary institutions do tend to hang out together, according to Rinehart, it’s definitely not always the case that they keep to themselves.

“I was surprised I didn’t end up in the New Yorker bubble,” says Rinehart. I ask him to clarify what he means, and he breezily lifts his hand and says, “Oh, you know—Dalton, Collegiate, Horace Mann, Brearley, all those schools.” Although Rinehart was only one of several students I spoke with who attended an elite private school, his experience seemed to corroborate some of Khan’s claims.

“This might sound a little strange, but I came with the expectation that I would feel like I’d always been here, that I’d be comfortable since I knew what the culture was like,” says Rinehart. “What happened was I was incredibly unhappy, alienated, and felt like I couldn’t fit in.”

Although Rinehart says that after about two years he was able to find a niche for himself at the College, there’s no way to tell how representative or not representative his experience is for other legacy students who might sometimes presume, reasonably, that adjusting to Harvard would be easier for them than, say, for first generation college students.

How much socioeconomic diversity is present in elite social organizations within Harvard, an elite institution itself, is also unknown: All eight of the male finals clubs, all four of the female finals clubs, the Hasty Pudding Social Club, and the Signet declined to share statistics about what percentage of their members were on financial aid, generally citing the privacy of their members.

Katherine, the student who confronted her own class identity after a conversation about about whether she received a financial aid email, acknowledges that an upper class stigma may exist for some, but feels that reducing the stigma is a matter of openness. When I ask about whether guilt played into her initial hesitance to tell her roommate about her financial situation, Katherine, reaching across her body with her right arm, says in a hushed voice, “I think it’s a bit like feeling ashamed, but these moments are only uncomfortable if another person makes them uncomfortable.”

VI. An Ongoing Discussion

August A. Dao ’15 is a skinny, soft-spoken chemistry concentrator from Portland, Oregon. The son of Vietnamese immigrants, he tells me over dinner about his life before Harvard with a disarming frankness.

“The neighborhood I grew up in was similar to a ghetto,” he says, noting the preponderance of working class immigrants who attended his high school, including Russians, Thai, Vietnamese, and African refugees. “By the end of my four years in high school, I had witnessed two students deaths and one stabbing. It was a very rough school profile, but I made it here, so I’m happy.”

Dao has been financially independent since his sophomore year of high school, for personal reasons, and stood out at a school whose graduation rate was “around 50 percent,” he tells me.

At the College, Dao works at Harvard Student Agencies in distribution, which he tells me is easy money because he can get work done that is supposed to take two hours in only 45 minutes, and as an HFAI coordinator, helping with outreach and working with students who qualify for HFAI on campus.

During his first semester, Dao struggled with a courseload that proved to be more than he could comfortably handle, and that he knew “never to do that ever again.” When asked about whether he finds it difficult to balance his schoolwork with other commitments like work, he says that because Harvard pays for his entire tuition, the remainder of the costs he’s able to pay for himself. Dao says that class isn’t an obvious issue that affects his interactions with others, and generally hasn’t been an issue.

“If people judge me for that [class background], obviously I don’t care for them,” he says.

I ask Dao whether he would support a student-run organization dedicated to first generation college students, he shifts his eyes from side to side as if I had asked him a trick question. “I...don’t really see the point,” he answers. For Dao, the resources that the College provides for lower-income students and first generation students through the FDO, the Financial Aid Office, and other supportive sectors of the institution are already substantial in themselves.

“I didn’t expect to see people from the same backgrounds as me, but it doesn’t matter socioeconomically where people are from, to me,” he says. When I press him about the idea of a first generation student group, he adds, “I guess what I mean is that people shouldn’t be ashamed of what class they’re from,” noting that he wouldn’t want students from similar backgrounds to segregate if such a group were created.

Although the College has grown more socioeconomically diverse in recent years, how we talk about class seems less clearly to be moving in any particular direction. As Dao suggests, maybe the resources are already in place to enable students to socialize and collaborate across class boundaries; others, like Laura, are less convinced.

“The only way to change our class structure is to talk about it a lot, talk about it enthusiastically, and to talk about it everywhere,” she stresses.

Others agree that a more open and widely promoted discussion would generate progress with regards to class inequalities and differences.

“Let’s make everyone responsible. I don’t think we can have enough of these conversations,” says Van Galen. “I think when we started opening up conversations about gender and race, there had to be an official endorsement for them to be taken seriously; we needed someone to make it safe for the newcomers to talk about it.”

“You have to have opportunities for this to happen,” says Nelson about the ongoing conversation about class. “You have to create structures in which this is possible, and that’s maybe the faculty or the administration or a student group, but it has to be intentional and have the resources, or otherwise it’s not going to happen.”

A single personal essay about class identity, “Choosing the Color of my Collar” by David E. Tebaldi ’10, has been included in the past couple iterations of Community Conversations, a series of required readings for freshmen that are discussed in small students groups led by a faculty moderator. Although Community Conversations has more readings about racial diversity than socioeconomic diversity, the two are distinct topics that are also entangled in many ways; how effective this program is at promoting a discussion on class, however, is disputable. Nelson, who has heard about this program from a number of his students, reports that the response is generally mixed.

“It’s good that they [the FDO] try to do this, although there might be a different point in the process for a more fruitful conversation because you’re dealing with so much [as a freshman] and still just trying to figure out how things work,” he says.

Khan, however, is even more skeptical about what can be accomplished on the level of the individual student at an elite institution.

“Harvard is in an important symbolic position in education, but, in my opinion, there’s still not much Harvard can do,” he says. “I think these problems require broader systemic change, rather than an added program about diversity in freshman orientation, for instance.”

Harvard, as a place of privilege, forces students to address how best to use their privilege. During my conversation with McCarthy, I broke from the routine set of questions to ask a more personal question; having been raised in an affluent suburb of central New Jersey, I couldn’t help but ask for advice: How do you use your privilege so that you can feel okay about what you’re doing, day to day to day?

“I would just advise students to ask themselves, ‘What can I do with my privilege to open doors of opportunity to those who’ve never had those privileges?’” he says.

Khan was less keen to give advice, noting, “I’m not very good with ‘should’ questions—I think of myself as more of a social critic.” But, he did offer a few parting thoughts.

“In writing the book, my hope is that those in privileged positions recognize a bit of themselves in it,” he says. Although it may seem obvious, awareness is the first step.

As Harvard has changed substantially from the days of producing an all-white, all-male American elite, the role that class plays in student life has not diminished, but instead changed in kind. The conversation never stopped; it just changed direction.

“Still,” McCarthy says, “I think class does haunt the place in ways that we don’t always recognize."