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?

The Ivy League classes of 2012 arrived on campuses in fall of 2008, just as the world economy was plunging into a Wall Street-driven freefall. Many were glad they weren’t out facing a nasty job market. But they worried about the future. They networked earlier. They fretted over internships.

Their senior year started with the launch of the Occupy movement, which raised a collective fist at the financiers whose casino games wrecked the economy. A few students from elite colleges even joined the protest. Back in November, some Harvard students interrupted a Goldman Sachs recruiting event hosted by the Office of Career Services.

But now the show is over, and it’s time to don the caps and gowns. Will students be any less likely to flock to Wall Street this year?

A look at last year’s numbers: In 2011, finance was still the most popular career for Harvard graduates, luring up 17 percent of those who went from college to a full-time job. Finance accounted for 14 percent of the 2010 graduating class at Yale. Princeton, which wins the Lloyd Blankfein Booby Prize for the most Wall Street-crazed campus, sent 35.9 percent of those who had jobs at graduation into finance. That’s more than a third of the entire student body.  

This year, colleges are reporting more positive hiring trends than any in recent memory. But the strongest growth in job offers has come from -- surprise! -- Fortune 500 companies, investment banks and consulting firms.

That certainly doesn’t bode well for the hopes that the best and the brightest will be flocking into public service.

Why do they still run to Wall Street? Are they greedy little lemmings, following the tribe? Are they scared shitless of the future? Or what?

The truth is that even at Princeton, there’s a sense the world is not necessarily waiting with open arms. The most privileged kids in the nation have been looking at the job market for the last couple of years and wondering if all that maniacal attention to performing well on test after test, joining the right clubs, and doing what’s expected is really going to pay off. Intense peer pressure means that everybody is looking at everybody else—those in the same class and those who came before and after -- and thinking, “How will I measure up?”

Ivy League universities tend to self-select young people who have a more conformist sense of achievement. True, students at Harvard and Yale are unlikely to be forced to work at coffee shops to pay off loans. But they measure themselves by a different yardstick, and the idea of not living up to all the hype that they and their families have been fed about their world-class educations can induce panic even in the well-to-do. Plus, Ivy Leaguers, just like students everywhere, register cultural shifts, and with the U.S. economy still crawling and the Eurozone stumbling and JP Morgan losing billions, many of them now feel that they had better make a run for Wall Street and make as much money as they can before Armageddon.

Then there’s also what James Kwak and others have described as the wildly successful Wall Street recruiting machine. Flush with cash, Wall Street firms can hire consultants and recruiters who tailor their pitches to the audience, mimicking the kinds of tests, competitive environment and validation these young people have been trained to respond to. 

Ironically, Greg Smith, who recently quite Goldman Sachs, stating his reasons in a New York Times editorial, described how he was taken in by – and later organized – just these kinds of recruiting efforts. Only his journey ended in complete disillusionment and the shameful knowledge that he was working in a den of crooks.

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.


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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.