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In a 1966 booklet called “College Admissions and the Public Interest,” B. Alden Thresher, the first ever director of admissions at MIT, laid out two approaches to higher education: the “poetic” and the “utilitarian.” While “utilitarian” students were “impelled by practical considerations,” their “poetic” counterparts took “innate pleasure” in learning.
Well, Harvard poets are now few and far between: As of 2022, more than forty percent of working seniors go into either consulting or finance. That number jumps to 58 percent when you add in the technology sector. By comparison, employment in the nonprofit or public service sector sits below four percent.
Many articles have bemoaned this trend of students “selling out,” but few have taken the time to quantitatively assess its origin. In this piece, I’m trying to do precisely that. I’m not intending to denigrate anyone’s career choices; I’m hoping to present a nonjudgmental sociological explanation.
As Harvard transitioned from a patrician school to a seemingly meritocratic one, students increasingly began to view their degrees as financial investments, attempting to maximize return while limiting downside risk. It is this new, pecuniary approach to one’s college education that is to blame for the vertiginous increase in consultants and bankers.
When Thresher was writing in the 1960s, Harvard was mostly white and rich. The school has, thankfully, diversified over time, and many point to this newfound diversity as causing the stark rise in students pursuing consulting and finance.
Students that don’t come from familial wealth may be “disinclined to smell the flowers along the way and to take some chances,” said former Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67.
But I think this change is more attributable to the culture of Harvard than to a demographic shift — for a few reasons.
First, as I’ve written, Harvard is still not particularly socioeconomically diverse: Only one-fifth of students come from the bottom 60 percent of the income spectrum. Even if each of these low-income students at Harvard in the 2000s and 2010s went into finance and consulting, that wouldn’t account for all the seniors choosing these career paths.
Second, using data from The Crimson’s senior survey, I looked at whether parental income was correlated with career choice. As you can see, low-income students are comparatively much more likely to go into technology over finance. But the aggregate rate of selling out is about the same — around 60 percent — for all income brackets.
Finally, there’s a tendency to overstate the role of money in students’ careers and ignore the culprit of prestige. The majority of Harvard students graduate debt-free — even English concentrators reported earning a median of six figures ten years after graduation. Meanwhile, a whopping 18 percent of Harvard graduates in 2011 applied to Teach For America, likely due in part to the program’s status and exclusivity.
Although economic diversification may not be to blame for higher levels of selling out, changing admissions over the past 60 years have played an important role. While Harvard hasn’t gotten much more economically diverse, the school’s newfound commitment to meritocracy has set off a rat race that ends at the doors of McKinsey.
Starting in the mid-20th century, Harvard shifted from a finishing school for patricians, to an embodiment of meritocracy — at least in brand.
With today’s roughly 1 in 30 chance of a Harvard acceptance, the hustle starts early. A manic, frantic generation of kids spend fewer hours with friends and more time doing schoolwork, extracurriculars, and volunteering, trying to get into the colleges of their dreams.
But getting into college isn’t the end.
“They’ve been through a highly competitive series of tests and applications, and they want to succeed,” English and Comparative Literature professor James T. Engell ’73 said about Harvard students. “But then they look around and they look at what the measures of success are.”
Having worked so hard to earn their spot here, students begin to chase their next marker of success. Although current undergraduates are still wealthy, their wealth is no longer a guarantee of success in an economy that increasingly values skills over connections.
New York Times writer and former Crimson columnist Ross G. Douthat ’02 describes this trend: “In today’s meritocracy, the family fortune must be reconstituted in every generation. Even if you could live off your parents’ wealth, the ethos of the meritocracy holds that you shouldn’t.”
But something is lost in all this busyness. An undergraduate degree, as Classics professor Richard F. Thomas told me, “is to prepare you to live an examined and meaningful life.” The constant chase of more success seems neither examined nor meaningful.
By the time students get to Harvard, then, academics are often the least of their concerns. Instead, some view college as “a stepping stone rather than an end in itself,” as Engell put it.
“If you go way back in time, when I was here, 1963 to ’67, people were much less focused on their eventual careers,” former Freshman Dean Dingman told me.
Engell concurred: “It’s not that people didn’t think about that 50 years ago — of course they thought about it — but there was not, I think, the near obsession, or in some cases the obsession, with it.”
The clearest example of Harvard’s careerist turn is its extracurriculars. Instead of being a way to “chill” or “get away from the academic stressors,” as Dingman says clubs used to be, student organizations — such as Harvard College Consulting Group and Harvard Financial Analysts Club — increasingly function as pre-professional outlets.
These efforts often come at the expense of classwork, converting even the most poetic student into a utilitarian careerist.
Research shows a long-term, national decline in hours devoted to schoolwork per week by college students. Here, too, Harvard seniors reported spending almost as much time collectively on extracurriculars, athletics, and employment as they spend on their classes. This stands in stark contrast to students’ old priorities.
During Engell’s college years, he said, “it seems to me that the centerpiece for many students — not all — of their experience at Harvard-Radcliffe was the four courses they were taking each term.”
Now, students are “more conservative in course choices,” according to Dingman. Risk-averse careerism has seeped into the choice of classes themselves. Many students now concentrate in fields like Economics or Computer Science to increase their job prospects. Their grades, too, have assumed an outsized importance due to increasingly competitive graduate school applications, according to Engell.
I’ve seen it: My pre-law friend dropped out of a class after receiving a B+ on an essay, for fear of rejection from law school.
This culture of pre-professionalism and risk aversion isn’t just an abstract pall hanging over campus. It’s also embodied by the constant physical presence of recruiters, who promise the job security that students are craving.
The administration is arguably culpable in this process; students have complained that Harvard prioritizes industry jobs at the expense of the public service and nonprofit sector.
Classics professor Thomas joked that “Goldman rents out the faculty club and has people there and has nice hors d’oeuvres and so on, whereas if you’re interested in public service, OCS will maybe have some Goldfish for you to munch on.”
“That difference in worlds and difference in messaging is colossal,” he added.
To Thomas’ point, the Office of Career Services is certainly not at fault for the culture created by recruitment-hungry companies. Ironically, though, the office was recently renamed the Mignone Center for Career Success after a large donation that came in part from an investment management firm partner.
Every part of the recruitment infrastructure is meant to minimize risk. Interviews have moved earlier and earlier, and sophomores now often finish the academic year having already signed an offer for their senior summer. Students can relax knowing that they’ve precommitted, eliminating any career uncertainty.
After all of this — getting into Harvard, joining pre-professional clubs, and doing the recruitment dance — even getting an offer isn’t the end. As Ezra Klein, another New York Times columnist, has argued, it’s precisely the temporary and noncommittal nature of these jobs that makes them attractive to students unsure of their preferred career trajectory.
A case in point: Even though the percentage of Harvard graduates who go into consulting has increased sevenfold since 1969, the amount of students who pursue consulting as a permanent career has stayed relatively stable. The search for success continues.
In transitioning from aristocracy to meritocracy, the ideal of a liberal arts education as a moral and intellectual pursuit was lost along the way. In its stead was left a breathless professionalism, one that instrumentalizes everything in its path for pecuniary gain.
But glimmers of change are starting to appear. Enrollments in humanities classes are still high, even if humanities majors are down. Also, Emanuel Contomanolis, the director of the newly-renamed Mignone Center, wrote to me in an email that Harvard students are increasingly interested in environmentally conscious roles in finance, and consulting for public interest and nonprofits rather than for large private firms.
So, while careerism has arguably put the classroom in the coffin at Harvard, perhaps we can find ways to keep up Thresher’s poetic tradition — even as we continue to sell out.
Aden Barton ’24, an Associate Editorial Editor, is an Economics concentrator in Eliot House.
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