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My roommate once compared attending Harvard to getting lunch with Obama.
Imagine you have 30 minutes with the former president. Thirty minutes to learn something new or to impress him. Now, imagine everyone else around you is also eating lunch with Obama — you’re constantly worried about using your 30 minutes as well as they do.
This is how I feel about Harvard. We have four years to make the most of this incredible place. Eight short semesters to take full advantage of every opportunity and resource. And, to make it even more stressful, everyone around you is (or at least appears to be) doing it much, much better than you are.
So, how should you make the most of college?
We all receive unsolicited advice from friends and family about “taking advantage of Harvard,” but these words of supposed wisdom always sounded vague to me and more related to that person’s life than mine. I wanted to find out what the empirical research says about college success, and, I’ve read the studies so that you don’t have to. Drumroll, please…
To make the most out of Harvard, all you have to do is be yourself and make rich friends.
First, it turns out your parents were right when they told you to be yourself. A famous study by economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger found that, once you control for a student’s ability, going to a selective school like Harvard actually doesn’t increase your career earnings.
They examined thousands of tax returns and found that graduates of elite schools do earn more than students from non-elite schools. But, once you account for student characteristics, the earnings gap completely goes away, suggesting that college choice matters far less than the student’s ability. In other words, a student who was accepted to an elite school like Harvard — but didn’t enroll — averaged the same career earnings as students who did enroll.
Does that mean your Harvard education is entirely pointless? Yes — and no.
It means that our individual characteristics, most of which were decided by the time we set foot on campus, matter much more than what college we’re at (hint: That’s why I told you to be yourself). It also means that Harvard is really good at discerning who’s going to be successful, and you were accepted because of that. Now that you’re here, artificially contorting yourself to make the most of Harvard is exactly the opposite of what you should do.
Put differently, Obama (read: Harvard) invited you to lunch because he thought you were smart and personable. Instead of tensing up and stressing about every conversation topic — which would ruin the meal — you should just continue being the type of person that got you the invitation in the first place!
Speaking of being invited to meals, let’s talk about making rich friends.
I may have fudged the truth a bit earlier when I said that studies found zero difference between selective schools and non-selective schools. The reality is that scholars have repeatedly identified that minority and first-generation students — but not their white and high-income counterparts — earn more after attending elite colleges.
No one really knows why these differential outcomes exist. One leading theory is that college is about the people you meet, which matters more to some students than others. If you’re a privileged white student, you’ll have family connections no matter if you go to Harvard or your local state school. If you lack those contacts, however, going to Harvard may help you build a professional network you otherwise would not have had.
One’s network on this campus is especially powerful. For example, a 2021 paper found that membership in a male final club helps your career earnings much more than academic success does. (Granted, the researchers’ dataset consisted of Harvard students from the 1920s and 1930s, arguably eons ago in terms of our University culture.)
But the general importance of one’s network has been confirmed by more recent research done by Harvard economist Raj Chetty. In his empirical analysis of the relationship between earnings and cross-class friendships, Chetty found that having wealthy friends is among the most important factors in upward mobility. Befriending that one problem-set partner who keeps talking about summering at Martha’s might just help drag you up the socioeconomic ladder.
Chetty’s data is granular enough to let us look at individual colleges, like Harvard. It turns out that our school has a surplus of wealthy students (no surprise if you’ve been reading this column). But Harvard also has many more cross-class friendships than the national average simply because most students, no matter their income, come into contact with wealthy classmates. And Chetty’s research suggests, these connections can be important in one’s success.
So, what are the implications for you? Should you stand outside the Porcellian trying to network? Should you sit next to the section kid who’s very clearly wearing a Rolex?
I’m mostly being sarcastic. Elite schools do help students by plugging them into a well-connected, powerful network. In fact, Harvard’s greatest benefit may be its match-making service – not its teaching – which exposes you to classmates that can help you out down the line. But, almost everyone you befriend here will go on to do incredible things. So, the “friend” part probably matters more than the “rich” part because nearly all of our classmates will have career success.
And that points to a broader lesson that there are still a lot of unanswered questions surrounding how selective schools benefit students, so we should have a lot of humility and uncertainty in extracting advice from this research. If I had to give a tentative distillation of the empirical data into a bumper sticker: Be yourself, but don’t be afraid to network.
Aden Barton ’24, an Editorial editor, is an Economics concentrator in Eliot House. His column “Harvard in Numbers” appears on alternate Mondays.
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