A friend of mine walked into Harvard’s Office of Career Services. “I don’t know what to do this summer and am thinking of an internship,” he told the career counselor he met there. “Have you considered consulting or banking?” she asked. He told her he was not interested in either of those things. “Hm,” she said. “I’d like something that would challenge me intellectually and let me use math,” he told her. The counselor perked up immediately. “Oh! Finance would be perfect for you!”
Like many of my classmates, I had never heard of “the finance industry” before my first semester at Harvard. However, Ivy League culture and efforts by both Wall Street firms and universities themselves propel undergraduates at top colleges towards careers in finance. Perhaps in partial response, recent protests at Ivy League universities like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have called attention to the frequently unethical nature of these jobs as well as the disproportionate focus on Wall Street careers at Ivy League universities.
A huge number of Harvard graduates end up in the financal services sector, taking jobs in investment banking and consulting right after graduation. At the height of the financial bubble, 47% of Harvard graduates headed to jobs in finance; the recession lowered that to 29% percent in 2011. Nonetheless, this number is large in comparison to the number of graduates who work in medicine, at nonprofits, or at public schools, for example. Similar trends hold for other Ivy League colleges.
Why do so many Harvard graduates work in finance? Most students contend that they need the assured income of a finance job to justify their expensive Ivy League degrees or support their families. For some, this may be true. However, in reality, finance may often simply be an easy career choice for undecided students. Ivy League universities have institutionalized the culture that makes finance jobs so ubiquitous among graduates.
A friend of mine at Cornell noted that Wall Street jobs are simple to find: to get an interview, she would simply put on a nice shirt, walk a few blocks, and hand someone her resume at a recruiting event. Indeed, firms regularly send recruiters to campus for job fairs, information sessions, and interviews. For example, for the week of November 28, Harvard’s Office of Career Services had 11 events on its calendar. Of these, six were hosted by investment banks and investment firms and two were hosted by consulting companies. The remaining three related to the “everything else” that a Harvard student might want to do after graduating (in this case, teaching, software programming, and graduate school).
Of course, Harvard has advisors to help students interested in careers such as medicine and teaching. The Office of Career Services hosts an online database listing dozens on internships at nonprofit organizations. However, these resources are often much less accessible and updated than those promoting investment banks and consulting groups: as my Harvard friend looking for an internship learned, career counselors may know relatively little about jobs outside of finance. Perhaps in an effort to guarantee wealthy alumni donors, the Office of Career Services seems intent on ensuring that no alumnus falls into the 99% without the student exerting a deliberate effort to do so.
Additionally, much of the encouragement to enter finance comes from a competitive college culture that equates income with achievement. The most socially successful students on campus, like the presidents of student organizations and members of elite Final Clubs, all seem to head to Wall Street after graduation. Other students learn to envy their prestigious employers and impressive starting salaries.
On November 28, with a group of students from Occupy Harvard, I attempted to enter an event hosted by Harvard’s Office of Career Services titled “Goldman Sachs: Investment Banking 101.” When we were denied entrance (apparently, “We are the 99%” buttons are a fashion faux-pas in collegiate recruiting), we held a rally outside the entrance to the building that prompted Goldman Sachs to cancel recruiting events at Harvard and Brown the following week.
This sparked an informative and important discussion on campus about the ethics of Wall Street jobs and also encouraged Harvard’s Center for Public Interest Careers to host a conference for students interested in pursuing public service careers. While these steps are important, destroying the well-paved road between the Ivy League schools and Wall Street will take a more dramatic cultural change on the part of students and administrators. Until we come to our senses, finance firms will continue to hire Ivy League students in disproportionate numbers.