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The Best and the Greediest? Ivy League Students Are Still Heading to Wall Street

The first post-Occupy Ivy League classes are graduating. Will they be any less likely than their predecessors to flock into finance?

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The universities themselves have not done much to stem the tide of the Wall Street recruiters, and often appear to be part of the problem, steering students into finance at every opportunity. Writing in the Nation, Sandra Y. L. Yorn confessed that the combination of Ivy League culture and the Wall Street firms’ high-octane recruiting efforts made her feel, when she was at Harvard, that finance was nearly the only game in town. There was information available for those wanting to go into teaching or medicine, but, she reported, “These resources are often much less accessible and updated than those promoting investment banks and consulting groups.”

In February, over 100 Princeton alums signed a letter in the Princeton Alumni Weekly complaining of the university's over-zealous support for “financial-service firms that have manipulated the political systems and economies of nations around the world to the detriment of those societies and the stability of the global financial system.” The authors of the letter applauded Occupy Princeton and warned students that if they choose finance as a career path, “They should know they are entering an industry with a reprehensible historical record of breaching public trust and engaging in practices that run directly counter to Princeton’s motto.” (That motto is, “In the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.”)

Ezra Klein complained in the Washington Post a while back that Wall Street firms are successful in nabbing all these kids because they know they are leaving college without “marketable skills” and fear that the fancy training programs at Wall Street are the only way to get them (and we’re talking about things like using Excel spreadsheets, not rocket science).

There’s truth to that.I was an English major, and while I’m very glad to have spent time concentrating on how to develop my brain rather than marketing my skills, I was initially at a disadvantage on the job market and had to teach myself skills very quickly. A one-semester course or program on “Skills you will need in the real world” might have helped me. At the same time, though, having a degree in the humanities nurtured my ability to do big-picture thinking, critique arguments and write well, all of which may have allowed me eventually to surpass some of my peers who chose more “practical” degrees because they were worried about the job market.

But at the end of the day, the Wall Street recruiting machine and the sycophantic relationship between it and the most elite universities is just a reflection of the fact that the financial sector is much too big relative to the rest of the economy. Until that balance is adjusted by breaking up the largest banks, ending the casino games and holding financial criminals responsible, the best and the brightest will continue to be drawn into its cold embrace.


Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet contributing editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of 'Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.' Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.