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Why Wall Street and Consulting Firms Win at the Elite College Brain Drain Game

The pressure of landing the right or even just a tolerable job leads people to convince prospective employers, and thus themselves, that they are a good fit.

The question of why graduates of prestigious undergraduate schools still wind up, in disproportionate numbers, at places like Goldman and McKinsey may seem so obvious as to be unworthy of notice. These schools are elite institutions, correct? Certainly this was all part of these students’ plans. They went to fancy academies to make sure they occupied a good position in society. The most obvious way to assure that is to get on a well-recognized fast-track career path. Even if things don’t work out as planned, these graduates will have accumulated more markers of their superior intelligence and work habits on their resumes, which surely will afford them better options later than other choices would have.

A new article in Washington Monthly describes why this conventional picture isn’t as tidy as it seems. Author Amy Binder and a small research team investigated recruitment processes at two campuses, Harvard and Stanford, and interviewed sixty undergraduates and recent grads who, seemingly by accident, wound up competing for and getting these highly-sought-after jobs. In fact, none of them had any interest in these careers before they encountered a systematic effort, in conjunct with the campus recruitment offices, to groom students for these plum positions. Consider: these firms still are magnets for new graduates:

In 2007, just before the global financial meltdown, almost 50 percent of Harvard seniors (58 percent of the men, 43 percent of the women) took jobs on Wall Street. That number contracted sharply during the Great Recession, but after 2009 it began rising again. Among this year’s graduating class at Harvard, 31 percent took jobs that will channel their energies into derivatives, mergers, and often destructive outsourcing. And many more tried out for such positions. According to a study by the sociologist Lauren Rivera, a full 70 percent of Harvard’s senior class submits résumés to Wall Street and consulting firms.

Meanwhile, among Harvard seniors who had secured employment last spring, a mere 3.5 percent were headed to government and politics, 5 percent to health-related fields, and 8.8 percent to any form of public service. Only high-tech fields captured the interest of graduating seniors at anywhere near the level of finance and consulting, and even this seemingly healthy countertrend has problems.

Yet perversely, the students aren’t keen about these jobs despite having competed fiercely to land them. As Binder writes:

Of the 31 percent of graduating Harvard seniors going into finance and consulting, only 6.39 percent say that they expect to remain in those sectors (0.68 percent of those going into consulting jobs and 5.71 percent of those heading to financial services).

It’s pretty much a given that way fewer than 6% will drop out. The compensation in these fields is well above those of other jobs that the employees can’t leave without taking a serious pay cut. And that pay gap widens further as they advance in these careers. That may not sound like a big sacrifice until you also realize that if someone has gotten married, or (worse from the perspective of mobility) had had kids, they have likely gotten themselves locked into overheads (houses, private schools, spousal expectations) that are very difficult to unwind. And these careers are so stressful (trust me on this one, despite the lofty pay and glamourous trappings, you have no right to say “no” to unreasonable tasks, time pressure, total hours, or travel demands) that buying yourself presents to reward yourself, aka “retail therapy,” becomes part of the coping mechanism. And that’s before you get to the fact that many of these firms are cult-like (Goldman and Bain are widely cited examples). The combination of routine boundary violations, limited contact with people outside the firm (family and friends go on the back burner) and elitism means that the employers strengthen their psychological hold over their staffers. For instance, even among those who had left Goldman to go to splashy jobs, virtually every one I spoke to said it took them two years to get over the idea that leaving Goldman was a major step down in life.

And as the article describes, persuasively, the students who wind up in these jobs never had any intention of going there when they arrived as freshmen, and indeed, didn’t know of the firms, much the less types of jobs they offered. But they soon fall in the force field of a finely tuned seduction, um, marketing process. Remember, getting staff with glittering resumes is crucial for selling premium-priced financial and consulting services. If you have staff who went to schools that rejected the executives at your clients, surely you really do have “talent” that deserves premium pay. Thus, these employers go to great lengths to make sure they land their targets:

To get to those kids, the nation’s top banks and consulting firms began by competing with each other to become “platinum” members of the career services programs run by the most elite schools. Winners of this pay-for-play competition get the best tables at campus career fairs, access to students’ email in-boxes, entrée to the most impressive banquet rooms for holding information sessions and receptions, bundled delivery of applicants’ résumés, and space and scheduled times to hold one-on-one interviews, among other goods and services known as “recruitment.”

It makes perfect sense that the universities actively support these recruiting campaigns. These institutions have every reason to cultivate ties with powerful private sector players that offer well-paid jobs that are an almost certain meal ticket to other well-paid jobs. These employers, eager to deepen their ties with the top academies in the hope of gaining competitive advantage, will almost certainly make generous donations (the schools are also clever in how they reward graduates who are consistent donors to keep them anteing up, so their are both individual as well as institutional reasons to curry favor with top schools). While the faculty is appalled that so many capable, intellectually curious students wind up in jobs with dubious to negative social value, they aren’t driving this bus. The campus administrators are. From their perspective, steering more students get big-ticket jobs creates a virtuous circle for the school: more well-heeled graduates makes for a bigger pool of income from which to solicit donations.

The article goes into great detail about how the wooing process works. An overview:

The recruitment process gins up early in the fall term and ends well before the academic year is over. Firms seek to sign up recruits as soon as possible, since it cuts off competing employers by removing fresh talent from the market. At the top of the calendar are firms’ information sessions, which are designed to educate students not only on the nitty-gritty of the application process (résumé-writing workshops, dates for résumé drops) but, more importantly, on what it means personally and socially to work for a high-prestige firm.

Marketing is heavy. Firms seek to make themselves the inevitable choice of students through slick video presentations, excellent food (more than one interviewee mentioned this perk), and a show of raw human talent. Investment banks and consulting firms do not send human resources personnel to work the room; they send teams of professionals to woo the young crowd, including recent graduates of the very schools where recruitment is taking place—an effective strategy for making the jobs relatable.

Most freshmen remain reasonably insulated from recruiters, but once students come back to school as sophomores they find it impossible not to notice their older peers’ “stampede to start applying” for jobs on Wall Street…

Nathan, who successfully landed a junior internship and then a job at a top investment bank, told us how these presentations simultaneously warmed him up for these jobs and also wore him down. “At Harvard,” he said, “you always want to seize every opportunity you can,” which is why he went to the sessions offered by the firms and gathered the “glossy pamphlets,” where everything “sounds so amazing.”

But it wasn’t just excitement that led him to apply; it was also, he said, “inertia.” Portraying himself as “extremely risk averse,” Nathan told us he hadn’t made “a conscious decision to pursue banking. It was more, I guess—I mean, I hate to use the term ‘fear of missing out.’ I didn’t know what I was missing by not applying, so I ended up doing my research and tossing my hat in.” Convinced by the information sessions that he would miss gaining “marketable skills” if he didn’t bite, he bit hard and prepared his file.

Yves here. These college recruitment blitzes are vastly more concerted and sophisticated than what I encountered when getting an MBA in the early 1980s. And mind you, then as now MBA programs are as much employment agencies as they are a combo trade/finishing school. But even then, most incoming MBAs, like the college freshmen, hadn’t heard about consulting firms and knew little about Wall Street. The business school students were there to burnish their credentials and wind up on a better career track (in most cases, not precisely defined) than the one they’d been on. It’s disconcerting to see an MBA grooming model applied so efficiently to even more malleable undergraduates. The recruiters are effective at capturing the ideal target: highly competitive, insecure individuals who don’t have a strong talent or gift that has given them an early career focus and are also drawn to the notion of a clear employment path. Keep in mind that these days, with children’s activities in the US vastly more structured than they were a generation ago, and job tenures short, the idea of a clear career progression has to be even more appealing than before.

And if you read the article in full, you’ll see that the need for a high salary to help pay down student loans doesn’t crop up as a motivator. Admittedly, this seeming omission might reflect reticence on the students’ part or bias in how Binder and her team framed the study But assuming we an take this work at face value, it suggests that students that had the luxury of choice nevertheless found themselves pulled by psychological manipulation they didn’t understand into careers they regard with considerable doubt.

Some may regard hand-wringing about the fate of elite college graduates as overblown. Should we be upset that they wind up slaves to what is now in fashion, career-wise? It’s not clear that this is that big a loss of “talent” since access to good-quality secondary and tertiary education in the US was wildly uneven before college costs exploded.

Nevertheless, this tracking should be a cause for concern. Whether or not you buy the PR of these schools that they have indeed admitted only the most deserving, at a minimum these kids are capable and motivated. A lot in the way of parental and society resources have been devoted to their training. It would be preferable if the broader community from this caliber of schooling.

Second, this feeder system deepens and institutionalizes class and income stratification. By contrast, when I went to college in the 1970s, most students were not terribly careerist. For instance, while one of my college roommates did get a law degree and wound up at Davis Polk (almost as an afterthought), one was deeply involved in the South African divesture movement and wound up playing important policy roles in the South African government in the post-aparatheid era, another worked at Brown managing the scholarly technology group, a third became a poet and the last an architect (note her family regarded her choice as downwardly mobile; architects don’t make a lot of money unless they go into development, but downwardly mobile was also not that far down back then). If I were to widen the sample (say to the people I knew in my college dorm, or through theater, my big extracurricular activity), it would have an even lower proportion who wound up on the conventional professional career paths.

Even with our current restricted class mobility, young adults have a wide range of career options and often make choices based on an inadequate understanding not just of what they are getting into but of their own character. The pressure of landing the right or even just a tolerable job leads people to convince prospective employers, and thus themselves, that they are a good fit. Some of this self-delusion and discomfort is hard to avoid in established careers; think of the stereotypical Organization Man of the 1950s who had to observe different but no less constraining routines and ritutals. But the idea that universities are enabling and profiting from this process rather than serving their nominal charges, the students, is yet another ugly proof that pretty much everything has a price in our plutocratic society.

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