Love them or loathe them, the residents of the scruffy tent city that has sprouted up near the southern tip of Manhattan have come up with some funky unofficial demands. They range from the utopian – a guaranteed living wage regardless of employment, canceling all debts and free college education for everyone – to the impossible: “Nationalize the Fed”. (You can check that one off your list guys – it’s why we don’t call it “The Private”).
Not surprisingly, loosely-related protests have spread to dozens of university campuses, with their abundance of idealistic youth who have plenty of spare time. Speaking of which, last week I received an appeal from “Our Time,” a group asking me to sign their petition concerned not with occupying Wall Street but with how many of their fellow college students want to be occupied by Wall Street. In an echo of protests that, in an earlier era, banned CIA recruiters or the ROTC from elite campuses, they object to the prominent position banks have in their career offices, often secured through donations.
Instead of producing great intellectuals, entrepreneurs, and public service leaders, America’s top universities have become primary training and recruiting grounds for the Wall Street banks and hedge funds that caused the financial crisis, are vastly expanding U.S. inequality, and continue to buy our politicians.
The numbers don’t lie. A fifth to a quarter of graduates from the likes of Harvard, Stanford, Yale and other top-tier schools flock to lucrative finance or management consulting jobs. A survey of Penn’s recent graduating class shows more students having accepted jobs at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup than Teach for America, a top destination for civically-minded graduates. Salary numbers don’t lie either. The average starting rate (without bonus) for those choosing high finance was nearly $70,000 versus $30,000 for those going to research laboratories or non-profit fundraising. Needless to say the gap gets far wider after five or ten years.
Should we be appalled at such materialism? Not really. Four years at these august institutions will cost a cool $250,000 and the average graduate of a four year college leaves with $25,000 in debt. To the extent that they receive scholarships or their parents pay the remainder, filthy lucre accumulated on Wall Street can be thanked for much of it.
Our Time has a point, but limiting their classmates’ access to top recruiters seems misguided. Those who go for the big bucks, whether out of necessity or baser motives, aren’t bad people. And they don’t say this either (just that they should consider doing things that help society more) but some other campus Wall Street-haters suggest that they are worse people for it.
“It’s glaringly obvious that there is an inherent connection between the tragedy of wasted minds at Dartmouth and the proliferation of corporate, consulting and ‘financial services’ recruiting on our campus,” fulminates Dartmouth’s Andrew Lohse in an op-ed in the student newspaper.
Really? Perhaps he hasn’t met the sort of people who go to work for, say, Congress or the United Nations, but the likelihood of someone failing to make use of their expensive education or to create much benefit for society in those places is about as high, I’m sorry to say. And, once you get past the stage of fetching Starbucks for VPs and staying up all night working on Excel spreadsheets and Powerpoint presentations, finance can be pretty rewarding in more than the pecuniary sense. Harvard’s David Weinfeld has an equally low opinion of bankers as he urges classmates to “boycott Wall Street”:
“Many of these careers may not be as financially rewarding as investment banking. But I assure you, they will almost certainly make you less insipid than your profiteering peers.”
Speaking for myself, nearly a decade into a second career as a journalist after a similar period spent at a big investment bank, I am just as insipid as I was back then. Nobody is forcing these young idealists to accept a fat check from a vampire squid, but they seem unaware how fortunate they are to be courted at all or how many thousands are in line behind them.
In 2005 Goldman received 7,691 entry-level applications and accepted seven percent – the same as ultra-selective Harvard. But Goldman only recruited actively at 75 schools- less than one percent of all US colleges and universities. So while the rabble-rousers downtown have no idea who they are talking about when they rail against the “one percent,” these students are most definitely in the one percent in terms of opportunities afforded them. One can probably receive a fine education at the University of Arkansas, but you won’t meet a recruiter from Goldman there, much less get hounded by one. By my calculation, graduates the other 5,700 or so US colleges where Goldman doesn’t t recruit can each expect to send one graduate there every other year on average. In practice, most schools never send anyone.
Elite college students’ luck may be changing though. “Trimming our sails” isn’t part of the current campus lingo so I’ll translate: Those words, uttered recently by JPMorgan Chase chief Jamie Dimon, mean less high-five-figure salaries being shelled out for bright but clueless Ivy League humanities majors. With trading revenue plunging on Wall Street, the same will be the case everywhere else too.
So be careful what you wish for – the closest some graduates may get to Wall Street is Zuccotti Park.