Discovering Harvard's Changing Social Fabric

In the early 1960s, socioeconomic and geographic diversity became defining characteristics of the student body

Danielle E. O'Neil

In the early 1960s, socioeconomic and geographic diversity became defining characteristics of the student body.

When Michael S. Lottman ’61 transferred to Harvard, 1950s America was in full-swing. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, the civil rights movement was in its infancy, and Radcliffe women still had a curfew.

But during Lottman’s three years at Harvard, America was transitioning into a new era. Lottman—a former Crimson managing editor—would graduate into a changing world not quite culturally situated in the ’50s, but not fully in the ’60s either.

“When I was in school, I was totally oblivious to what was going on. A lot of us were,” he says. “It was a time of transition. I often thought, ‘I wish I had gone [to Harvard] a few years later.’”

But in this volatile time, Harvard administrators recognized a budding shift and sought to avoid becoming stagnant in the face of change. A short three months after Lottman’s class graduated, former Harvard Dean of Admissions Wilbur J. Bender ’27 declared in a report that Harvard should revise its admissions policies.

“Unless hereafter the steady stream of tuition increases slows down to what is justified by inflation, Harvard College will have to cut itself off from most of America,” Bender wrote in the report, which garnered national attention when it was released in Sept. 1961.

During the four years that the Class of 1961 spent as undergraduates, the College began to acknowledge the need to support socioeconomic and geographic diversity among the student body, a change indicated by the host of programs that, though young, were rapidly accelerating.


At first glance the figures from Bender’s report do not suggest that the College was becoming more exclusive, as more students of diverse backgrounds filed applications.

The total number of applications jumped from 3,602 for the Class of 1961 to 5,235 for the Class of 1964—an increase of 45 percent.

Furthermore, the total number of scholarship applicants rose by nearly 73 percent in that same period.

Students say they sensed that they were benefitting from a diverse class.

Christopher Wadsworth ’62 says that he had several roommates from the Midwest and enjoyed learning from their different perspectives, evidence of the increasing number of students from outside New England.

But looking closely at the numbers, Bender saw a different trend. His report noted that while on the whole the University was giving more financial aid, it largely benefitted students from upper middle class backgrounds rather than the genuinely poor who could not otherwise afford a Harvard education.

“In a decade of almost fantastic increase in our financial aid resources we were unable to increase significantly the proportion of the student body receiving financial aid from the College,” Bender wrote.

His 1961 report would serve as the basis of a change in philosophy that would distinguish the future classes from classes of the past.