You might call it humility. Or maybe it’s the ultimate sign of elitism. Whatever the reason, graduates from Harvard, the top-ranked university in the world, have a very difficult time telling you where they went to college.
Instead of giving a straight answer, Harvard alums often evade the college question with an overly generic response like “I went to school just outside of Boston.” A few of these people are begging for the follow up. They want you to know that they went to Harvard, but they don’t want to be the one to say it. But most hope that such a vague response will dissuade follow up questions. There are literally dozens of schools “just outside of Boston” do you really care which one I went to?
For these people, figuring out how and when to “drop the H-bomb,” as Harvard people call it, is a required skill for navigating the real world. “If you say you went to Harvard right off the bat, you can seem too eager. But if you’re too insistent on avoiding saying it, then you seem even worse,” one alum told me.
Harvard alums are the only graduates in the country who face this struggle. Everyone has heard of Harvard. Everyone has an opinion of Harvard. Across the country, Harvard is respected as a great bastion of research but also reviled as a symbol of elitism and entitlement. People often even mockingly pronounce Harvard in an aristocratic British accent, puffing out their chests as they emphasize each syllable: “Hahh-vahhd.”
To many, Harvard is where the rich go to get richer – where the haves learn how to retain their position over the have-nots. Harvard’s endowment of $36.4 billion is larger than the economies of half the countries in the world. The average starting salary for a recent Harvard graduate is $55,300, which is less than the same statistic at Stanford, Princeton, and Caltech, but still higher than the median household income in the US.
When a student or alum announces their Harvard affiliation, they know that they are not just stating where they went to college; they are inviting criticism of an entire capitalist system. “People visibly look at you differently when they find out you went to Harvard,” one alum told me. No matter that 60% of Harvard students are currently on financial aid. Or that, when financial aid is taken into account, Harvard is actually less expensive for 90% of Americans than their local state school. “I’ve had to stop wearing my Harvard sweatpants to the gym because I would get honked at and have people say rude things to me,” said another.
And so the Harvard masses go into a pseudo-hiding for much of the year – dropping the H-bomb when its advantageous, making sure not to talk too loudly about Harvard memories in public, keeping their Crimson apparel tucked away in the bottom drawer.