It was 1749, and John Winslow was about to go to sea. Any voyage was a risky, time-consuming endeavor in those days, so before he left he sat down to write an important letter. His correspondent wasn’t a loved one or even a friend: It was Edward Holyoke, president of Harvard University.

“Rank in our way is looked upon as a sacred thing,” he wrote, “and it is generally allowed that the sons of New England Cambridge are placed according to the degrees of their ancestors. I have therefore put in my pretensions for my son.” He launched into a long list of his genealogy and his own accomplishments.

Winslow was writing on behalf of his son, Pelham. The hope wasn’t that Pelham would get into Harvard; his son’s ability to pay tuition and his education as the son of a gentleman would have taken care of that. But Winslow knew that college was no meritocracy—and that his family’s rank would seal his son’s fate inside the university.

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Harvard University circa 1638

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.

Class hierarchy was alive and well in England, but the system was based on how much parents were willing to pay, not necessarily the actual social standing of the parents themselves. Some parents enrolled their sons in lesser tiers out of financial concerns or a desire for them to accomplish more academically, and a student’s academic tier was not directly proportional to his social class.

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Harvard University.

But at Harvard, the opposite was true. Shortly after enrollment, freshmen were sorted into a list by the university’s president, who ranked them according to their family’s social stature. According to historian Franklin Bowditch Dexter, the rankings were largely determined by the wealth of the student’s father, though factors like colony of residence and their father’s profession also played a role in the rankings. 

It’s unclear when the system that ranked people based on family “dignity” began; historian Samuel Eliot Morison believes that American universities originally used the English system of tuition-based rankings before abandoning them for ones based on social stature. There was at least one tuition-connected rank until the 1730s; "Fellow Commoners" who paid double tuition received perks for their payments. 

“The scholars were often enraged beyond bounds for their disappointment in their place,” recalled Paine Wingate, the 18th century Harvard graduate. So were parents, who wrote angrily to school administrators trying to wheedle their sons into better positions.

Though the ranking was relatively fixed for the next years of enrollment, a student could lose standing if their father experienced a blow to his social stature or if they themselves committed a crime like stealing a fowl or breaking the Sabbath.

In 1696, Samuel Melyen, the son of a prominent town founder, was demoted to the lowest rank in his class for disciplinary reasons. After graduation, he wrote to Cotton Mather, the son of Harvard’s president, and begged him to pull strings to restore his status within the class. “Nothing, Sir, can be more grateful to my Father and Mother, nor anything more encouraging to me,” he pleaded. “I am very Sorry (& desire to be very penitent) that in that as well as in so many other things I have displeased so worthy a gentleman as your President.” Mather didn’t make the recommendation, and Melyen’s rank never changed.

The practice, which was also used at Yale, lasted until the end of the colonies. At Yale, it was abolished around 1767. And in 1769, the issue came to a head at Harvard when a disagreement over two families with similar social standing turned the issue into a hotly contested debate. A group of college overseers recommended that the practice be abandoned in favor of organizing classes in alphabetical order. Though the college experience didn’t exactly become a meritocracy after that, the practice of ranking Harvard students according to their fathers’ perceived stature didn’t make it through the formation of the United States.