The Common Good

Will the Class of 2012 Head for Main Street or Wall Street?

Why do so many of America's best and brightest want to work on Wall Street?

Harvard University's Annenberg Hall. Photo Copyright 2004 Jacob Rus via Wiki Com
Harvard University's Annenberg Hall. Photo Copyright 2004 Jacob Rus via Wiki Commons.

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Maybe that’s an obvious question.

Money. Power. Glamour. Exclusive parties. A great view of Zucotti Park?

These are probably some of the more superficial answers that go around the heads of soon-to-be college graduates as they are schmoozed by Wall Street firms at recruitment events every year.

An article by Amanda Terkel on Huffington Post this week observes that the financial sector enjoys almost unbridled access to the nation’s brightest minds – for a price of course. The Stanford Career Development Center offers recruiters the prime spots at career events, breakfast and parking for recruiters and access to university email lists if they become ‘Platinum’ donators to the ‘Employer Partner Program (at a cost of $10,000 a year.)

And recruiters are not doing this for fun, or in vain.

Students really do want to go and work in the financial sector. While the financial crisis has led to a drop in the number of graduates moving into the financial and consulting sectors, it remains a significant number. Terkel cites a Harvard Crimson poll, which showed that in 2007, 47 percent of Harvard seniors entered began careers in either finance or consulting.

Forty-seven percent.

Nearly half of all the graduates of what is arguably the platinum-standard in American higher education went to work for Wall Street in 2007.

I could be wrong, but I don’t imagine that half of the courses at Harvard are intended to prepare young men and women for a life of finance, trading and auditing. Do they have 16th Century Poetry readings at Merrill Lynch? Lunchtime seminars on Greek political theory at Citigroup?

Why are so many young people willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on tuition to study subjects that has little bearing on their professional career?

If the goal is simply to end up working for a big bank on Wall Street and retire by the time you’re 45, why go through all of the bother of deciphering conversational Mandarin, string theory or Proust when you're 18?

I’m sure that most students enter college with an idealistic idea of what the future holds.They really do want to be teachers and doctors and engineers.

But there is something fundamentally wrong with our education system when the draws of a huge salary and big bonuses consistently trump the aspirations and dreams that were front and center in our lives just four years earlier. Debts, a lack of job opportunities in other fields, your basic standard-issue panic — or maybe a simple absence of imagination can take hold and send us running into the arms of the recruiter with the flashy suit, a Hollywood smile and promise of a better life.

As Terkel reminds us: “Young people will continue to go work in the financial sector as long as its pay is disproportionately higher than alternative careers. It's basic human nature: Follow the money.”

But what would it look like if we didn’t follow the money? What if Wall Street paid no more than schools or hospitals?

What would our economy look like if these leading young minds chose not to work for big banks and consultants, but instead were the teachers that helped turn failing schools around, the innovators and engineers who were designing products that would create thousands of new jobs?

What needs to be done so that the finest members of the 2012 graduating class head to Main Street instead of Wall Street?

Jack Palmer is a communications assistant at Sojourners. Follow Jack on Twitter @JackPalmer88

 

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