Reflections on Friendship, Wealth, and College

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I still remember my first meal in Annenberg — one that came years before I got my Harvard acceptance. I sat in awe, looking at the boundless ceilings and stately busks of what would eventually become my first-year dining hall. This was in eighth grade, on a field trip meant to get our class excited about high school and the journey to college.

Growing up and attending public school in Cambridge was a luxury. Just last year, my old high school, Cambridge Rindge & Latin, spent an average of nearly $19,000 on every student, far above the national average. My history teacher senior year attended Harvard and was a Rhodes Scholar; graduating seniors moved on to Ivies and other prestigious universities across the country. The feeder-school system worked seamlessly for many students.

Beneath all of these amazing opportunities, however, lay striking inequality. Cambridge Rindge & Latin is constituted by an odd mix of both the uber-wealthy and the extremely disadvantaged. Many students are the children of the elite, and of prestigious Harvard and MIT academics — yet 43 percent of the school is low-income, with most of these students living in affordable housing units across the city. In a certain light, this is a remarkable accomplishment: Cambridge has the highest rent in the state, yet has managed to achieve meaningful socioeconomic diversity in its public school system.

However, this acute economic stratification, as well-intentioned and against-the-grain as it may have been, resulted in social stratification. As with many places — including Harvard — Cambridge Rindge & Latin was socially segmented along the lines of class and race.

As for your narrator: I occupied an odd place within this complex social matrix. I grew up in public housing and didn’t have the same advantages as many of my peers. Yet, my central friend group was fairly wealthy and from highly-educated families. We initially connected over interests such as playing pick-up basketball, chatting over games of Fortnite, and biking to school each morning. The socioeconomic discrepancies had no bearing on our relationships and never emerged in conversation. However, in a paradigmatic example of high school anxiety, it was something I secretly worried about. I didn’t start inviting people over to my house regularly until senior year — I was concerned that I didn’t have enough space or a nice enough layout to host large groups, that my house lacked the sophistication which was present in the homes of other peers. Some of my high school friends have, to this day, only visited my house once or twice.

Transitioning to Harvard felt like a fresh start, even though it was only two blocks away from Cambridge Rindge & Latin. College is an equalizer of sorts — we’re all given the same dorms, the same minimal guidance, and our newly distant childhood can finally be reflected upon with some perspective. Further, and perhaps shockingly, the culture at Harvard is highly conducive to exploring the impact of socioeconomic background. Just last week, I attended an Eliot House FGLI mixer where I talked to resident tutors and peers about their low-income and first-gen backgrounds. Being in this environment for over a year has made it quite easy to talk and even write openly about my fiscal situation — a welcome change since high school.

Despite this improvement, college has created new and more subtle social barriers, all of which are predicated on wealth. Friendships are formed in a new, more particular, manner. People no longer bond over pick-up basketball and biking to classes. Instead, we choose friends by using subtle cues about background, political affiliation, and socioeconomic status, curating social groups that reflect our carefully selected priorities. Discussions about wealth are more normalized in college, yet socioeconomic status seems to matter more. It feels natural to choose friends based on which authors they have read and whose philosophies they endorse. Wealth, however, is behind the curtain of all of these markers.

In an odd, almost perverse sense, I miss my worries from high school. Yes, I was consistently concerned about discussing my socioeconomic situation with friends; however, had I gotten over this personal stigma, the problem would have vanished. My friends likely would not have cared about my house, or my unique socioeconomic status in the friend group. If anything, our relationships would have deepened.

Our tendency to sort our peers based on wealth in college is an entirely different problem than social stigma. It’s both blameless and pernicious. It’s a great thing that we have matured, and can select friends with similar preferences and tastes. Yet, there was something beautiful about friendships being formed in such an innocuous setting, before any of our self-defining sensibilities even had the chance to develop.

Beyond recognition, there is not much of a solution to our sorting mechanisms for relationships in college. Conversations necessarily revolve around shared interests, which are grounded in wealth and childhood exposure. At the very least, we can be more conscious about how we select friends, and try to look past some of the first markers we choose when creating relationships.

Harold Klapper ’25 is an economics and philosophy double concentrator in Eliot House. His column “Practical Progressivism” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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