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A few months ago, I was talking to a British contractor and a Singaporean army recruit at a bar in Cairo about something that had been weighing on my conscience — the infamously contested “selling out.”
I explained my predicament concisely: I want to pursue a lucrative job immediately after graduating, primarily to assist my family and to pay back my mother for the sacrifices she has made since immigrating. However, I could never imagine telling my friends, or a crush for that matter, about a consulting internship with a straight face. The palpable stigma at Harvard surrounding “going into finance” or taking consulting jobs is daunting. My two new friends looked confused. After some pause, one asked, “isn’t the point of going to college to earn more afterward?” Although I don’t endorse this sentiment, it made me realize something all too easy to forget: Selling out is mainly a concern within our Ivy League bubble.
Of course, there are strong reasons this stigma exists at Harvard. Students consistently describe consulting, finance, and tech positions as soul-crushing jobs with long hours and little emotional reward. Further, a lot of the students who end up taking jobs in these industries already come from wealthy and privileged backgrounds. This narrative, however, is too simple.
Financial comfort is a legitimate factor for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds to consider when choosing careers. Financial excess, though, is harder to justify. The line between comfort and extravagance is blurry and subjective, marking another reason our current discourse on selling out is lacking subtlety. Also, there are plenty of meaningful and high-paying jobs that serve to question the negative correlation between salary and social value — physicians and climate consultants, for example. Our current discourse is a broad castigation of anyone who takes a high-paying job in dominant industries. The most corrosive effect of this lazy narrative is the stigma it creates for low-income students, who should never be shunned for seeking lucrative jobs after graduation. These jobs are oftentimes the only, and fastest, avenue to ensure financial comfort for these students and their families.
In a past opinion piece, Patrick M. Magee ’21 defended the choice to sell out. He argued that not everyone can pursue socially meaningful work, but we can all be more generous within our communities. Similarly, I want to defend the notion of selling out, but only for those with low-income backgrounds. It’s absurd that a first-gen student would have to hide the fact that they are thinking of working in finance or are on the board of a consulting club. I don’t believe a student who comes from an underprivileged background should ever have to justify their choice to pursue financial comfort after college — especially to other students who have a strong sense of financial security. Social mobility for low-income individuals and their families should be a shared and categorical goal for Harvard. Yet, spreading the simple narrative that selling out is broadly immoral actively detracts from this important project.
The irony of this situation is in plain sight. Progressive students that are justifiably concerned with income and racial inequality are leading the discussion against selling out, guiding individuals to non-profit or social justice work instead. This discussion, in turn, puts pressure on low-income students to avoid jobs that would create social mobility, ostensibly a progressive goal. Broad claims about selling out implicitly place the onus of inequality on students who have the rare opportunity to reduce it.
To be clear, I don’t want to encourage all low-income students to only seek the highest-paying jobs. I also don’t want the stigma around picking lucrative careers over meaningful ones to fully disappear. I just want students to be more intentional when they talk about the idea of selling out. There may be some justification for criticizing a privileged Harvard student that chooses to work at Goldman Sachs; students with a financial safety net should be encouraged to pursue work in fields that lead to positive change. What is most important, though, is that the first-gen student who is also being recruited by Goldman doesn’t have to deal with the same rhetoric and stigma.
For many low-income students and their families, Harvard is a vessel for financial success, not a flowery exploration of the liberal arts. Let’s encourage everyone to work in socially beneficial roles, while also acknowledging that financial comfort is a reasonable goal for all students. Paramount, though, is ensuring that the stigma against taking high-paying jobs is not felt by low-income and first-gen students — the very last people who should carry this weight on a progressive campus.
Harold Klapper ’25 is an Economics and Philosophy double concentrator in Eliot House. His column “Practical Progressivism” appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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