I still remember my first meal at Annenberg – a meal that took place years before I got my acceptance to Harvard. I sat in awe, gazing at the boundless ceilings and stately buses of what would become my freshman dining room. It was in eighth grade, on a field trip to get our class excited for high school and the trip to college.
Growing up and going to public school in Cambridge was a luxury. Last year, my former high school, Cambridge Rindge & Latin, spent an average of nearly $19,000 on each student, well above the national average. My senior year as a history teacher attended Harvard and was a Rhodes Scholar; senior graduates have gone on to Ivies and other prestigious universities across the country. The feeder school system worked seamlessly for many students.
Behind all of these incredible opportunities, however, lie stark inequalities. Cambridge Rindge & Latin is made up of an odd mix of very wealthy and extremely underprivileged people. Many students are the children of the elite and prestigious scholars at Harvard and MIT – yet 43% of the school is low-income, with most of those students living in affordable housing across the city. In one light, this is a remarkable achievement: Cambridge has the highest rent in the state, but has managed to achieve significant socioeconomic diversity in its public school system.
However, this acute economic stratification, however well-intentioned and contrarian it may have been, resulted in social stratification. Like many places including Harvard, Cambridge Rindge & Latin was socially segmented by class and race.
As for your narrator: I occupied a strange place within this complex social matrix. I grew up in an HLM and I didn’t have the same advantages as many of my peers. Still, my core group of friends were quite wealthy and came from highly educated families. We first connected over interests such as playing basketball, chatting about Fortnite games, and biking to school every morning. Socio-economic differences had no bearing on our relationship and never surfaced in conversation. However, in a paradigmatic example of anxiety in high school, it was something I secretly worried about. I didn’t start inviting people to my house on a regular basis until the last year – I worried that I wouldn’t have enough space or a nice enough layout to accommodate large groups, that my house wouldn’t have the sophistication which was present in the homes of other peers. Some of my high school friends have only visited my house once or twice so far.
Transitioning to Harvard felt like a fresh start, even though it was only two blocks from Cambridge Rindge & Latin. College is a kind of equalizer – we all have the same dorms, the same minimal guidance, and our newly distant childhood can finally be thought about with some perspective. Additionally, and perhaps shockingly, the culture at Harvard is very conducive to exploring the impact of socioeconomic background. Just last week, I attended an Eliot House FGLI mixer where I spoke to resident tutors and peers about their low-income and first-generation backgrounds. Being in this environment for over a year allowed me to speak and even write openly about my financial situation – a welcome change from high school.
Despite this improvement, the university created new, more subtle social barriers, all based on wealth. Friendships are formed in a new, more special way. People no longer tie themselves to basketball and cycling to class. Instead, we choose friends using subtle clues about background, political affiliation, and socioeconomic status, organizing social groups that reflect our carefully selected priorities. Wealth discussions are more normalized in middle school, but socioeconomic status seems to matter more. It seems natural to choose friends based on the authors they have read and the philosophies they endorse. Wealth, however, is behind the curtain of all these markers.
In a strange, almost perverse sense, I miss my high school worries. Yes, I was constantly anxious to discuss my socio-economic situation with friends; however, if I had overcome this personal stigma, the problem would have gone away. My friends probably wouldn’t have cared about my house or my unique socio-economic status in the friend group. On the contrary, our relations would have deepened.
Our tendency to sort our peers by wealth in college is an entirely different issue than social stigma. It is both irreproachable and pernicious. It’s a good thing that we have matured and can select friends with similar preferences and tastes. Yet there was something beautiful about the friendships that were formed in such harmless surroundings, even before any of our defining sensibilities had had a chance to develop.
Beyond acknowledgment, there really isn’t a solution to our sorting mechanisms for college relationships. Conversations necessarily revolve around common interests, which are grounded in childhood wealth and exposure. At the very least, we can be more aware of how we select our friends and try to look beyond some of the early markers we choose when forming relationships.
Harold Klapper ’25 is a dual Concentrator of Economics and Philosophy at Eliot House. His “Practical Progressivism” column appears every other Tuesday.