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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

More Democracy at Harvard

HARVARD University’s announcement earlier this month that it will offer significant financial assistance to students from families with household incomes between $120,000 and $180,000 presented an unlikely image: the upper-middle-class scholarship student.

Harvard hopes its plan to charge those students 10 percent of their household income will attract students of middle- and upper-middle-class parents who have been scared off by its $45,000-plus price tag. It seems a safe bet. Since 2004, when Harvard began offering free tuition to families with incomes of $40,000 or less (it has since raised the cutoff to $60,000), the number of low-income students has increased by 33 percent.

But Harvard officials also expressed hope that its new policy would erode the “upstairs-downstairs syndrome” that still pervades there. They spoke of a divide in which only wealthy students are able to pursue highly valuable but unpaid research opportunities, take unpaid summer internships or study abroad.

Class division has been problematic at points throughout the history of America’s elite colleges. Particularly within the sanctuaries of Harvard, Yale and Princeton, there have been ingrained traditions of snobbery and exclusion that often had little to do with money and could be far more subtle and insidious.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, social status at all three schools was determined by membership in private clubs and secret societies, according to “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton,” by Jerome Karabel, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley.

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