When an ambitious student from a low-income family arrives at college for the first time, they might assume that all they need to do is work hard and excel at their studies, and they’ll be in a position to move into the most prestigious career tracks.
But research on Harvard students in the 1920s and 1930s suggests that students from privileged backgrounds hold a social advantage that lasts throughout their careers and raises questions about how old boys’ clubs can dull the egalitarian promise of higher education.
In a new study drawing on a variety of archival records, Seth Zimmerman, an associate professor of economics at Yale SOM, and his co-authors, Valerie Michelman of the University of Chicago and Joseph Price of Brigham Young University, found that students from elite private high schools were far more likely than other students to join the most exclusive clubs in college. Those clubs then appeared to help members—even those with lackluster academic performance—to launch higher-paying careers. More recent data indicates that the backgrounds of Harvard graduates continued to shape their career paths as recently as the late 20th century.
“Putting people next to each other physically didn’t bring the lower-income kids into the main strands of the social life at the university.”
The Harvard archives shed light on a larger phenomenon, Zimmerman says: the structures that elites create to maintain their advantages in the face of social change. For a student from a low-income family, “the grades don’t matter that much,” he says. “It’s the social success that seems to matter much more.”
Social gaps persisted despite Harvard’s efforts to bring together students of different backgrounds in dorms. While private school graduates reaped benefits from having rich neighbors, lower-status kids didn’t gain the same connections from living among well-heeled peers.
“Just putting people next to each other physically doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll interact with each other in meaningful ways,” Zimmerman says. The policy “didn’t really succeed in bringing the lower-income kids into the main strands of the social life at the university.”
The study grew out of two earlier lines of research. Other researchers have performed qualitative analyses of how elite class are formed. Narrative accounts suggested that ascending the social ladder often resulted more from getting into the right circles than being exceptionally smart or skilled.
In his own earlier research, Zimmerman studied how people enter the top echelons of society in Chile. He found that students from rich and poor families alike enjoyed relatively high incomes after completing selective medical programs. But the benefits of attending elite business schools were distributed unevenly. These programs substantially boosted wealthy students’ chances of reaching the top 0.1% income tier, but poorer peers saw no such gains—perhaps because the rich people fit in better with social activities that elevated their careers.
What was missing was quantitative data on students’ participation in social groups and how those memberships affected careers. So Zimmerman, Michelman, and Price turned to Harvard’s archives on students who entered the university from 1919 to 1935.
These records were like “the predecessor of Facebook,” Zimmerman says. They included each student’s high school, academic rankings at Harvard, extracurricular activities, and membership in “final clubs,” Harvard social clubs that date back to the 18th century. The researchers linked those data to census records of the same men, which included their earnings. Class reunion reports, compiled 25 years after graduation, provided the professions of alumni.
The team then split students into two groups: kids who had attended eight exclusive prep schools (called “private feeder” students) and those who hadn’t.
Compared to lower-status peers, private feeder students “performed much more poorly inside the classroom,” Zimmerman says. They were 55% more likely to rank in lowest academic honor category and half as likely to get top academic honors.
But these high-status students were much more active outside the classroom. On average, they joined about twice as many extracurricular activities, and they were three times more likely to lead those groups. They also were nine times more likely to be admitted to the six most prestigious final clubs.
These social connections appeared to pay off. After graduation, members of those final clubs earned roughly 30% more than non-members in the same academic rank. Poor grades didn’t hold them back. In fact, club members with the worst grades outearned non-members with the best grades by 26%, and they were about three times as likely to reach the top income tier recorded in the census.
Part of the reason might be that selective final club members were much more likely to enter the extremely high-paying profession of finance. Non-members tended to pursue other careers, such as medicine or higher education.
It was possible that simply being born into a wealthy family led these high-status men down a golden path, regardless of their social activities in college. But further analyses suggested that the differences couldn’t be explained only by attending a fancy private school or having a father who graduated from Harvard. Even when the team compared brothers who both attended Harvard, one of whom joined a selective final club and one who didn’t, the “popular” brother tended to outearn the high-achieving brother.
The researchers then went a step further to investigate the importance of social connections—and whether physical proximity to rich students gave lower-status kids an opportunity to join rarefied circles.
They took advantage of the fact that Harvard offered dorm rooms of varying prices. Students could request a certain price and were randomly assigned to rooms. But cheap and expensive rooms were mixed in varying proportions throughout the dorms. By chance, a student might end up in a block of rooms with relatively rich neighbors or in a block where rooms were cheaper on average.
The question was: Did living among richer peers affect students’ social lives?
It did—but only for students from private feeder schools. Graduates of those schools with richer neighbors were more likely to participate in social activities and join selective final clubs, compared to private feeder students surrounded by poorer neighbors. But among lower-status students, it made virtually no difference whether they were living with rich or poor neighbors.
“You’ve got parallel social worlds. If you’re a richer student who is now surrounded by richer peers, then you become more engaged in this social world, whereas that doesn’t seem to happen across pre-existing status boundaries.”
“You’ve got parallel social worlds,” Zimmerman says. “If you’re a richer student who is now surrounded by richer peers, then you become more engaged in this social world, whereas that doesn’t seem to happen across pre-existing status boundaries.”
Do these obstacles exist at Harvard today? The team couldn’t perform all the same analyses for recent classes because census records for those alumni aren’t yet public, and memberships for final clubs—which in recent years have been sanctioned by the university for misbehavior and gender discrimination—have become sealed.
But the researchers were able to examine honors and career choices for the classes of 1924 to 1990. They found that lower-status students consistently continued to outperform their private feeder peers academically. The divide in finance narrowed starting in the late 1970s; more public school graduates began entering the profession around the time when finance jobs became more analytically intensive. On the flip side, more private feeder students started flowing into MBA programs. So while the nature of the career gap has changed, it’s not clear that the income gap has closed, Zimmerman says.
The researchers can’t say whether final club memberships yield the same benefits today that they did in the early 20th century. But the study does suggest that if students’ goal is to make it to the top of certain parts of the business world, perhaps “a narrow focus on grades may not be the right one,” Zimmerman says. “There’s a broader set of activities and skills that might be valuable to cultivate in college.”