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Getting Into Harvard Was Once All About Social Rank (Not Grades)

In the 17th and 18th centuries, students at America’s elite universities were treated differently based on the social stature of their parents.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Harvard relied on strict class rankings that weren't based on grades, or even tuition. Rather, the school treated students differently based on the perceived social stature of their parents—rankings that colored every aspect of college life.

At Harvard, the university’s president was personally responsible for the ranking, which was printed each year and posted on the school’s bulletin board. It affected everything from where students sat to the order in which they were called to recite.

“The official notice of this was given by having their names written in a large German text, in a handsome style,” recalled Paine Wingate, who graduated from Harvard in 1759. “This arrangement was never afterward altered either in College or in the Catalogue, however the rank of their parents might be varied.”

Housing decisions were made on the basis of rank, and those of a lower rank were expected to defer to their more highly ranked fellow students. Rank even determined who marched when during commencement.

At the time, notes historian Joseph Kett, “an individual’s likely value to a community was an accepted foundation of social distinctions.” Everything from plots of colonial lands to seats in church were doled out based on social standing, Kett writes, and people were expected to live up to their social status.

Harvard’s system differed from that of universities in England, Scotland and Ireland. There, students had long been sorted into groups based on the amount of tuition their parents paid. These socioeconomic classes “affected every aspect of college life,” notes historian Robert Wells. “Students acquired these places of prestige in the Oxford community and the freedoms associated with them by literally purchasing them from the colleges.”

At those older universities, students in the top tiers didn’t have to do most homework or examinations and were rarely disciplined for bad behavior. They wore glamorous gowns and came and went as they pleased; they ate in private dining rooms and spent most of their time socializing. 

The lower the academic grouping, the more restrictions were placed on the student’s movement and activities. Men who belonged to the lowest class were forbidden from eating along with other students and wore clothing that set them apart. At Trinity College, for example, sizars (the poorest group of students) had to wait on their fellow students, ate their leftovers, and swept and rang bells in exchange for tuition.