From those already interning as summer analysts to those with an active disdain for such work, no Harvard student can help but notice the scores of campus recruiting visits made by financial institutions. Indeed, “I-banking,” consulting and other jobs in the finance industry are among the most popular career choices for Harvard students. Finance attracts these graduates for an array of reasons, ranging from cultural influences to economic incentives. In the wake of the economic crisis, however, the number of graduates going into finance has dropped significantly, raising questions — yet unanswered — as to whether this change represents a temporary reduction in finance opportunities, or a more lasting reassessment by undergraduates of the professional and social purposes to which their education should propel them.
Attraction and Repulsion
At least at Harvard, careers in finance boast a psychological appeal. Jarell Lee ’10 commented to the HPR that students pursue finance because “there are clear cut steps that you know from upperclassmen, and they just pass it on to you. And because the pay is so high, the job is seen as prestigious and as one of the best accomplishments you can have as a young Harvard [graduate].” Indeed, much of finance’s attractiveness to Harvard students lies in the peer validation and prestige associated with the field. But candidates are also drawn to the financial stability that even entry-level jobs in consulting or finance provide. As Luke Long ’03, who worked for the Blackwell Group after graduation, told the HPR, “If you’re coming out of college … you can go out, learn for two years, pay off debt or save up money.” The benefits of working at a financial institution thus range from experience — which can be extremely beneficial to those pursuing MBAs — to financial peace of mind.
Yet the economic downturn has reshaped the career decisions of Harvard’s most recent graduates. The Harvard Crimson reported that the total percentage of students entering finance and consulting has decreased from 40 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in 2009; f the Class of 2009, only 11.5 percent of seniors entered the financial sector. Given that the economic crisis began in the financial sector and has caused a number of firms to downsize or disappear, many financial institutions are simply not recruiting as much as before. In the long term, however, the question is whether students will return to finance once the recession has passed, or if disillusioned by economic fallout, they will pursue other avenues of interest.
Harvard President Drew Faust sees both factors at play. As she told the HPR, “A lot depends on how [the] financial services industry evolves and whether some of these jobs return … Secondly, I think we’ve been through a year that was very politically engaged and [people are] very interested in serving the public good.” President Faust has received attention nationwide for her preoccupation with the vocational direction of today’s college graduates. Her September article for the New York Times, “Crossroads: The University’s Crisis of Purpose,” focused on the disproportionate number of students — at Harvard and at other universities — who enter finance and business instead of jobs in public service. When asked how universities could encourage students to enter other professions, President Faust responded, “First, to develop paths of recruitment and job placement in other areas so students can see other paths clearly marked … [Another] part is trying to identify careers and make them visible.”
While business can certainly serve as a platform to positively transform the world, President Faust clearly believes that universities in general, and Harvard in particular, would better improve society and promote truth if more recent graduates pursued non-finance careers. Last year’s data gives her cause to hope; for example, according to The Harvard Crimson, the Class of 2009 showed a five percent increase in students entering the field of education, with 14 percent of the class applying to Teach for America. Perhaps these developments represent a fundamental shift in the attitude of graduating seniors, and even a generational affinity for service. Or perhaps finance’s clear path, prestige, and financial incentives are as attractive as ever to the typical graduate, but are temporarily inaccessible. Either way, only the career choices of current and future undergraduates will reveal which explanation rings more true.