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Getting brilliant students to seek jobs beyond Wall Street

The financial industry has long concentrated its search for new blood on the well-manicured campuses of America's elite universities. But that pipeline to talent is facing some push-back.

November 04, 2011|By Nathaniel Popper, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New York — This time of year, the Columbia University Faculty Club becomes something of a Wall Street annex.

Here, in a candlelit room overlooking a garden, Citigroup Inc. recruiters recently wooed undergrads with French cheeses, strawberries and raspberries served on silver platters. Students signed in on iPads, then sipped Perrier as the presenters made their pitch.

"We're very interested in hiring very smart and motivated people," a Citi executive told the collegians.

The financial industry has long concentrated its search for new blood on the well-manicured campuses of America's elite universities, where job prospects after graduation may be the one thing even higher than the tuition. But that pipeline to talent is facing some push-back.

Fueled by the same anger motivating the Occupy Wall Street movement, students and professors at the nation's most prestigious universities are criticizing the high number of young men and women going into trading firms and hedge funds.

"The best minds of my generation are using their brainpower in ways that will not make society's problems better, and could make them worse," said Andrew Lohse, a senior at Dartmouth.

Lohse and students at Yale, Harvard and Stanford have recently written articles in their campus papers calling attention to the issue. And a new national campaign called Stop the Brain Drain is gathering signatures from students online and pushing for a change in recruiting practices on campus.

Faculty members and administrators at several elite schools have been devising ways to steer students in other directions.

MIT recently created an entrepreneurship center to support students seeking opportunities outside of high finance, such as working for start-ups and other small companies.

"Once it became clear that financial instruments were a big cause of the crisis, and that's what our incredibly intelligent students were being used for, we thought, 'Boy, can't they be used to do more useful things?'" said Bill Aulet, who heads the center.

Down the Charles River, Harvard President Drew Faust has been making it a point to applaud students who choose careers in public service over high finance. The career services office has worked to make nonprofits like Teach for America more visible on campus and encouraged them to move their recruiting efforts to the fall when the banks make their case.

Banks have traditionally made their most intense recruiting push at a small circle of elite schools, including Stanford, MIT and Ivy League members like Harvard and Princeton. At several of these schools, more than a quarter of all graduates entering the workforce have taken jobs in finance and consulting, according to surveys done by the universities. On the West Coast, UCLA, USC and other schools have tended to be less of a target for Wall Street recruiters.

Professors and students say there are some students who come to college dreaming of working at a bank. But they said most students who end up in finance are influenced by the high salaries and the lack of other visible options on campus. Many end up staying in the financial industry for life.

There are already indications that university students are drifting away from jobs on Wall Street, in part because of the shrinking of the financial sector after the 2008 financial crisis and again this year.

From Harvard's most recent graduating class, 29% of those entering the workforce went to finance or consulting firms, down from 47% in 2008. Meanwhile, 20% of graduates applied for Teach for America, a sharp rise.

But there is still a strong interest in Wall Street jobs from students who say those jobs would enable them to make a good salary, gain important skills and be involved in important work.

"I don't have the luxury to go into a field that pays less," said Dartmouth senior Yan Fan, a triple major in Arabic, Chinese and economics. "It's kind of insurance in a way — it will give me a steady income for me to stabilize my life, pay down my loans — and it will open me up to more opportunities."

The issue has put some pressure on university administrators. While they want to encourage students to explore opportunities outside of Wall Street, they also are keenly aware that bankers are a big source of donations.

Just last year, private equity king Henry Kravis gave $100 million to Columbia's business school. Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein has donated millions to his alma mater, Harvard. Former Citi CEO Sandy Weill's name is all over the Cornell University campus thanks to hundreds of millions he has given.

The universities "would much rather have their students changing the world and using their knowledge to do good, but they can't be going around criticizing their benefactors," said Vivek Wadhwa, who teaches classes on entrepreneurship at Duke and UC Berkeley.

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