Reflections on Friendship, Wealth, and College | Opinion

I still remember my first dinner in Annenberg—one that was years before I got accepted to Harvard. I sat in awe, gazing at the boundless ceilings and stately bus lines of what would eventually become my first year dining hall. This was in eighth grade, on a field trip designed to get our class excited about high school and the road to college.

Growing up in Cambridge and going to public school was a luxury. Just last year, my old high school, Cambridge Rindge & Latin, averaged nearly $19,000 per student, well above the national average. My senior history teacher 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 smoothly for many students.

However, behind all these amazing possibilities lay a striking disparity. Cambridge Rindge & Latin is an odd mix of the over-rich and the extremely underprivileged. Many students are the children of the elite and respected Harvard and MIT academics — yet 43 percent of the school is low-income, and most of these students live in affordable housing units across the city. In some ways, this is a remarkable achievement: Cambridge has the highest rents in the state, yet it has managed to achieve significant socioeconomic diversity in its public school system.

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This acute economic stratification, however well intentioned and contrary to the grain, led to social stratification. As in 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 in this complex social matrix. I grew up in public housing and didn’t have the same benefits as many of my peers. However, my core group of friends was quite wealthy and came from highly educated families. We initially chatted about interests like playing pick-up basketball, chatting about Fortnite games, and riding our bikes to school every morning. The socio-economic discrepancies did not affect our relationships and never surfaced in the conversation. However, in a paradigmatic example of high school anxiety, it was something I was secretly worried about. I’ve only started inviting people over to my home regularly in the last year – I was concerned that I didn’t have enough space or a nice layout to accommodate large groups and that my home lacked the sophistication that existed in the homes of was other peers. Some of my high school friends have only visited me once or twice to date.

Moving to Harvard felt like a fresh start even though it was only two blocks from Cambridge Rindge & Latin. College is a kind of leveler – we all get the same dormitories, the same minimal instruction, and our recently removed childhood can finally be reflected with some perspective. Additionally, and perhaps shockingly, the culture at Harvard is very conducive to studying the impact of socioeconomic background. Just last week I attended an Eliot House FGLI blender where I spoke to local tutors and peers about their low-income and first generations. Being in this environment for over a year has made it fairly easy to speak and even write openly about my financial situation – a welcome change from high school.

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Despite this improvement, the college has created new and more subtle social barriers, all based on wealth. Friendships are made in a new, more specific way. People no longer bond when they pick up basketball and ride their bikes to class. Instead, we select friends using subtle cues of background, political affiliation, and socioeconomic status, and curating social groups that reflect our carefully chosen priorities. Discussions about wealth tend to be more normalized in college, but socioeconomic status appears to be more important. It feels natural to choose friends based on which authors they’ve read and whose philosophy they support. However, wealth is hidden behind all these markers.

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In a weird, almost perverse way, I miss my troubles from high school. Yes, I was constantly apprehensive about discussing my socio-economic situation with friends; However, if I had overcome this personal stigma, the problem would have disappeared. My friends probably wouldn’t have cared about my house or my unique socioeconomic status in the friend group. If anything, our relationships would have deepened.

Our tendency to rank our peers by wealth in college is a very different problem from social stigma. It is both blameless and harmful. It’s a great thing that we’ve matured and can choose friends with similar likes and tastes. But there was something beautiful about making friends in such an innocuous environment before our self-defining sensibilities could even develop.

Aside from recognition, there’s not much of a solution to our college relationship sorting mechanisms. Conversations inevitably revolve around common interests based on wealth and childhood. At least we can be more conscious of how we choose friends and try to look beyond some of the first markers we choose when building relationships.

Harold Klapper ’25 is a double concentrator in business and philosophy at Eliot House. His Practical Progressivism column appears every other Tuesday.

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