Old Boys’ Clubs and Upward Mobility Among the Educational Elite


Education and Inequality, Human Capital, Skills, Occupational Choice, Labor Productivity, Job, Occupational, and Intergenerational Mobility


This article studies how exclusive social groups shape upward mobility and whether interactions between low- and high-status peers can integrate the top rungs of the economic and social ladders. Our setting is Harvard University in the 1920s and 1930s, where new groups of students arriving on campus encountered a social system centered on exclusive old boys’ clubs. Combining archival and census records, we first show that students from prestigious private feeder schools are overrepresented in old boys’ clubs, while academic high achievers and ethnic minorities are almost completely absent. Club members earn 32% more than other students and are more likely to work in finance and join country clubs, both characteristic of the era’s elite. We use random variation in room assignment to show that exposure to high-status peers expands gaps in college club membership, adult social club membership, and finance careers by high school type, with large positive effects for private school students and zero or negative effects for others. To conclude, we turn to more recent cohorts. We show that the link between exclusive college clubs and finance careers persists across the twentieth century even as Harvard diversifies, and that elite university students from the highest-income families continue to outearn their peers.

Original Publication Citation

Michelman, Valerie; Joseph Price, and Seth Zimmerman. “Old Boys’ Clubs and Upward Mobility Among the Educational Elite” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 137(2), 845-909, 2022.

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date



Oxford University




Family, Home, and Social Sciences



University Standing at Time of Publication

Full Professor