Thursday, September 18, 2008

The death of a Princeton culture? NYT columnist on Princeton and I-Banking

NYT columnist Roger Cohen takes direct aim at Princeton (and other Ivy League) students in an Op-Ed today, arguing that the culture of seeking fortune through jobs in finance such as investment banking is at the root of the current financial crisis. The conversation that he describes is certainly one that I've had with my friends at Princeton, both who enter the financial world and who choose not to:

When I taught a journalism course at Princeton a couple of years ago, I was captivated by the bright, curious minds in my class. But when I asked students what they wanted to do, the overwhelming answer was: “Oh, I guess I’ll end up in i-banking.”

It was not that they loved investment banking, or thought their purring brains would be best deployed on Wall Street poring over a balance sheet, it was the money and the fact everyone else was doing it.

I called one of my former students, Bianca Bosker, who graduated this summer and has taken a job with The Monitor Group, a management consultancy firm (she’s also writing a book). I asked her about the mood among her peers.

“Well, I have several friends who took summer internships at Lehman that they expected to lead to full-time job, so this is a huge issue,” she said. “You can’t believe how intensely companies like Merrill would recruit at Ivy League schools. I mean, when I was a sophomore, if you could spell your name, you were guaranteed a job.”

But why do freshmen bursting to change the world morph into investment bankers?

“I guess the bottom line is the money. You could be going to grad school and paying for it, or earning six figures. And knowing nothing about money, you get to move hundreds of millions around! No wonder we’re in this mess: turns out the best and the brightest make the biggest and the worst.”

As the crisis deepens, and the list of major investment banks shortens to Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley (who have their own falling share prices and buyout rumors), where will this year's crop of Princeton seniors find jobs after graduation, or for juniors, internships next summer?

When I have the conversation about jobs and the future with my friends, I usually disagree with Cohen and the student that he quotes. They say that Princeton students enter finance because "the bottom line is the money."

While I have no doubt that money is a factor, I've always felt personally that Princeton students enter the private sector because they feel it will satisfy their sense of drive and the need to have a "prestigious" occupation. Until this year, unlike public or non-profit sector employers, financial firms could afford to hold the type of events and run the type of recruiting that attracts students seeking prestige and a sense that their work will prepare them for a meaningful and successful career surrounded by like-minded people.

Non-profit groups like Teach for America, which focus heavily on recruiting and have a dedicated staff, are able to fill this niche of satisfying ambition and drive as well, and as far as I can tell compete with investment banks to attract Princeton students despite lower pay.

In the whirlwind of classes, jobs, and thesis, seniors seeking a prestigious job may not have the time or energy to find a calling in the public or non-profit sector without heavy recruitment.

Is Cohen right that Princeton and other Ivy students opting for i-banking is a sign of a culture of greed that is now being forced to atone, or do Princeton students aim higher than money for prestige, but cannot find it in government or a non-profit who lack the resources to recruit and make their case?


anonymous_coward said...

If the "service ethos" that you propose ever gets off the ground, it will not be because the great masses of students will join in. Only the rich can afford to take low-paying but sexy careers, just as today they monopolize careers such as journalism. The middle-class will still produce ibankers and premeds - and their avarice is born of necessity.


"the “cool” professions, such as journalism, are heavily populated by children of the rich, but they don’t wear t-shirts that say “my parents are decamillionaires,” so unfortunately some middle-class children try to get into these professions without realizing how the odds are so stacked against them."

Of course, getting a cool public-service job is itself a form of competitive status seeking, so those seeking to enter that field are not particularly morally superior:

"There are actually only a very small number of public service positions that are fun and interesting. Thus you need the most prestigious possible credentials to get hired into such a position.

The janitor at the public school who cleans the bathrooms is performing a public service, but that’s not the kind of public service that rich kids are interested in."

English Major said...

They do it for the money.

Alum said...

Why is prestige so much more lofty a motive? Prestige and money are both superficial and empty rewards, both of which, of course it must be said, we all want. But don't pretend that one is better than the other.

Anonymous said...

I still think journalism is the most prestigious career out there.