In the fall of 2019, Holly Fetter (MBA 2020) and Alexxis Isaac (MBA 2020) looked ahead to their imminent graduation and considered how they could make a difference towards increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at HBS. Socioeconomic inclusion (SEI) was a frequently-mentioned topic among classmates, so in short order they set up a task force to examine how MBA students experience the role of class. We asked Holly and Alexxis about the task force and their hopes for how it will affect the future of the MBA student experience.

How did the socioeconomic inclusion task force come about?
Class and class diversity—in terms of socioeconomic status—were topics that Alexxis and I heard a lot in our DEI conversations with students and administrators. We thought that we should create a group outside of the existing DEI communities and task forces that specifically focused on this issue. We worked with Jan Rivkin to set up a student-led task force that was made up of students, faculty members, and administrators who were passionate about this particular topic, and we convened a group of students who were interested in understanding the experience of class at HBS and generating research to write a subsequent report. We also piloted a few programs within sections to experiment with identifying and surfacing class tensions—one example of that was a “Class Confessions” program in which students anonymously shared their connections to wealth and money and their anxieties therein. It was a powerful way to start the conversation.

How did you gather the data?
Our main goal was understanding the state of socioeconomic inclusion at HBS, and we approached that through collecting both qualitative and quantitative data. We split the task force into a qualitative committee and a quantitative committee. The qualitative group focused on getting feedback from students, staff, and faculty. We held open brainstorming sessions, which we publicized and were open to the community. In one of those sessions we held a workshop to try to flesh out what types of issues were top of mind. The quantitative team created a survey that touched on sentiments about socioeconomic inclusion as well as demographics. We found that the school doesn't have a great sense of people's socioeconomic background—there was data collected from the financial aid process, but not a clear sense of such things as wealth versus income. The survey collected that sort of information so that we could see how different demographics influenced how included people felt on campus, and how much access they felt they had.

What aspects of inclusion did you cover?
We measured five different focus areas across the school:

  • the actual socioeconomic diversity of the class itself
  • the cost of attending HBS
  • the cost of extracurricular and social experiences, which are less formally included in the cost but impact one’s ability to access the full experience
  • how the topic of socioeconomic diversity is covered in the curriculum and acknowledged and addressed within the HBS community
  • how socioeconomic background influences career choices.

What were some of your findings?
On a high level, we saw that the topic itself was one that people had an appetite to discuss and address more directly. That was a big takeaway, that this is the beginning and shouldn't be the end of this process. There's a lot to uncover and address.

Holly: A lot of what we found were issues that we had suspected were there, but were still staggering to read in actual quotes and data. Many students feel that HBS is much more expensive than they expected. The amount that is covered through loans is less than the actual cost—that discrepancy was very explicit in the data. It was also clear that people aren't talking about class, whether in the classroom or sections or social groups. It's such a salient and stressful part of so many people’s lives, and it really defines one's HBS experience, yet there's not a lot of open conversation about the topic. It felt useful to put numbers and context on something that a lot of us sensed, which was that there is this very invisible yet very present tension on campus around people's access to finances.

Were there any challenges in the process?
Holly and I were very pleased by how many different offices were attentive to engaging with us on this topic. In the report development process, we talked with key stakeholders in offices such as Admissions, Financial Aid, Career and Professional Development, and the MBA Program, about the data that we gathered and some of our initial recommendations. As Holly mentioned, a lot of the issues that we brought to the table were those that people knew about anecdotally, but never had any tangible data behind. There was genuine appreciation of our efforts to create a dataset behind some of that intuition.

Holly: This was definitely a partnership and a very collaborative process with administrators, some of whom initially came to us to raise this issue as one to focus on. We had buy-in from the beginning. There were some collegial tensions that arose, for example around who should do much of the behavior change work. For example, we could ask students to travel less, but for that to actually work in reality there first needs to be a collective consciousness about class, so that students understand how their behavior impacts their classmates. That tension was quite friendly, and was helpful to talk through. Another area of concern is with COVID-19 and the implications that it has for the school. Everyone is obviously focused on that, and it holds so many different class dimensions—who has access to being on campus, as well as resetting traveling and social gatherings and going out to dinner. We all have to experiment with different ways to connect and build the traditional HBS networks virtually. It will be interesting to see how the COVID context affects the implementation of some of our recommendations.

Alexxis: One important aspect of our recommendations is centering the idea of equity instead of equality. Equality is giving everyone the same amount of assistance, for example financial aid or scholarships, whereas equity takes individual context into consideration in order to provide the same outcome. With equity, some people might need additional funds to get to the same level as someone else, and the focus is on balancing the outcome and end state rather than the support given. That is hard for institutions, because you don’t want to give disproportional benefits, but the reality is that different populations and people from different backgrounds actually do need additional support in order to create an equal experience. Introducing that lens to help the school better understand where it could benefit from institutionalized efforts to enable equity was a really important aspect of this work. Continuing those conversations going forward will be important, and hopefully now those can happen a bit more openly than they have in the past.

You’ve both now graduated—how are you ensuring that this work will continue?
We have a set of recommendations, each of which has a suggested stakeholder, that we’re passing along to the various teams. For example, this summer I interned with the Admissions and Financial Aid office, and my work was solely dedicated to attempting to center some of those recommendations. We’re seeing that many offices are actively thinking about how to implement some of our recommendations. Two EC students, Joshua Mbanusi and Tory Voight, have taken the baton and will lead these efforts going forward. We also brought in a professor and advisor to help drive this forward, Rem Koning, who has been very excited and engaged.

What aspects of this work have been most important to you each?
The big thing for me is that this is an underexplored dimension of diversity—one that I truly feel should be prioritized at HBS and at other institutions. This topic really requires institutionalized efforts—it can't just be student driven. There need to be systems in place to drive the change forward and create the broader messaging that assert its importance and relevance. Those are the issues that really drove me to do this work and still stand as true.

Holly: I echo those sentiments, and will add that it’s really important to acknowledge that it's ok to talk about class and money. We talk about class all the time in ways that aren't honest or productive, and ironically, we always talk about money and profit and revenues in the classroom. The HBS community needs to start talking about class. I think there's an interesting implication for fostering more inclusion around socioeconomic status in terms of what inequality looks like after people leave HBS. If students from lower income backgrounds are not able to access the full HBS experience and can’t network with people who come from different class backgrounds, not only do they miss out on that broader learning experience of connecting with people from diverse backgrounds, but it could create a continued social stratification in which wealthy students come to HBS, only interact with other wealthy people, and then leave and stay in those networks. There's something interesting there that has connections with race and racism as well. I'm thinking a lot about the responsibility of a place like HBS to ensure that students from lower income backgrounds are able to experience genuine social mobility—of course my hope would be that all students work together to fight to limit inequality overall in society—but that's a much larger topic!