The popular press is obsessed with the idea of elite college students going to Wall Street. Just last week, the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein wrote that elite students are still going to Wall Street because their liberal arts educations have left them with no marketable skills. Thus, businesses swoop onto campus and snatch up these confused children. They market their contract as a risk-free Excel boot camp. At worst, students spend two years working at a breakneck pace with one hell of a business card to flash at high school reunions.
The conversation shows no signs of ending because despite the national scorn heaped on the financial sector during the past year, students are still going to work there. The New York Times reported that 17 percent of Harvard students, 14 percent of Yale students, and 35.9 percent of Princeton students from the class of 2010 went into the financial sector. We can quibble all we want about these figures, but they do suggest that more students are going into finance careers than who actually like finance.
Current thinking on this issue has moved away from the “money” factor, but the conversation should return there. Existentially torn students do not turn the “Career Wheel of Fortune” and land on “Goldman Sachs” 17 percent of the time. They go to banks, hedge funds, private equity firms, and other black boxes of investment because they offer $120,000-plus starting compensation.
All the other reasons people provide, “opportunities,” “surrounded by smart people,” and “exit options,” can be traced to money or delusion. People want “opportunities” to make money. The idea that finance is the only sector where you can be “surrounded by smart people” is both elitist and incorrect. If “exit options” were truly important then students would more closely interrogate whether their older peers have left the financial sector for public service.
Does this mean that Harvard students are greedy baby vulture capitalists who see nothing more on the fifty-year horizon than an Upper East Side penthouse, summers in the Hamptons, and a “couple of Cadillacs?” This is an offensively simple narrative. Instead, it would be more accurate to say that students crave Wall Street’s money because they want to retain the place in America’s upper class that they secured with a Harvard admission.
It is impossible not to think about money at Harvard. Everywhere you look, you see the benefits of having piles and piles of cash. Green is not at all the “new” Crimson. It’s the foundation of the school: the marble halls of the library, the new Mac computers in every building, the ornate dining halls, the post-375th birthday party grass implants in the Yard, the incredibly generous financial aid. To say that there isn’t security in being awash in such luxury would be a lie. Moreover, all this wealth signifies something: we have earned a place in the upper class of this country. After four years at Harvard, leaving this cultural echelon and living remotely close to the way the average American lives is a frightening step down in comfort and prestige.
Furthermore, leaving behind this lifestyle might mean leaving behind many of your Harvard connections. If you’re in I-banking and I’m a teacher, can we still afford to be friends? This isn’t a trivial concern. The building blocks of friendship are often financial transactions. Everything from the restaurants we frequent, to the events we attend, to the clothes we buy is a marker of expense. Many of us will move to New York, D.C., or Silicon Valley post-graduation, three of the priciest areas in America, so this concern is all the more relevant. Evan T. R. Rosenman ’12 wrote in The Crimson of the jarring experience of living with summer roommates who spend much more or less than you do. He concluded, “In just a few years, we will all leave this school with the privilege of an Ivy League education, and the associated earning potential….How we choose to “use” our privilege—by spending lavishly or living abstemiously, donating graciously or forgoing money to spend time with loved ones—will play a major role in defining our identities.” Not having and spending money could make us very different from the people whom we’ve grown to care about throughout our college careers.
There is no easy solution to the issue of elite students going into lucrative careers that don’t necessarily benefit society. Like everyone else, we find it much easier to continue a lifestyle than change it. But perhaps a measure of relief can be found in the liberal arts education—that beleaguered institution that Klein dismissed as useless. A liberal arts education is supposed to make us realize that sharpening our instincts for empathy and exploring different worldviews is a reward in itself. It’s about all the good things that life can offer besides class security. True, trying to sell glorious poverty at Harvard is like selling abstinence in Las Vegas. Still, perhaps a true Harvard education can free us from the trap of the Harvard lifestyle.
Anita J Joseph ‘12, an editorial chair emeritus, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.