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One reason why elite students aim for elite careers

In great numbers, students who attend Ivy League institutions end up pursuing jobs that are in the highly lucrative fields of management consulting, finance and technology.

But do students want to attend a school like Harvard just because they aspire to work for firms like Goldman Sachs and Bain Capital, or is something else at play?

In seeking answers, Amy Binder, a professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, and her collaborators, sought to find out what was behind the stampede at elite universities into the lucrative fields of financial services, consulting and technology. Binder discovered that a huge driving force behind the embrace of these highly compensated careers was the behavior of the universities themselves. By their actions, these schools set these lucrative occupations apart and allowed recruiters greater access to the students that most other occupations didn't enjoy.

For the study, the researchers specifically looked at student aspirations and recruiting at Harvard and Stanford.

At Harvard, according to an annual career survey by the Harvard Crimson, nearly a third of the graduating seniors in 2014 had secured jobs in consulting or finance. Other elite schools, the researchers noted, produced similar, if not identical, employment figures. Roughly half of Harvard 2014 graduates secured jobs in consulting, financial service and technology.

At Stanford, nearly a quarter of graduates obtained first jobs in technology fields, and 22 percent were split between consulting and financial services.

Faculty and administrators at highly prestigious schools that serve as pipelines to these elite jobs are often taken aback at the high percentage of their students who pursue these fields rather than jobs in socially beneficial and creative careers. Previous studies that looked at this issue have focused more on employer recruitment activity of these elite students and not on what role universities might play in promoting this pipeline to a narrow band of careers.

Stanford and Harvard's role in career selection

The researchers discovered that most students were not focused on pursuing jobs in investment banking and consulting before arriving on their campuses. In fact, most had no idea what these jobs were. Not surprisingly, students were more familiar with technology as a career, but their knowledge came from a user's point of view -- they did not know what the jobs in this field entailed.

Students at Harvard and Stanford quickly learned, however, that these fields were prestigious and that students should be pursuing them. A major reason students became excited about these fields is because the schools essentially gave great access to companies in these fields at the expense of other ones.

Just having these recruiters on campuses, however, wouldn't translate into the huge percentages going into these fields. The dominant access that these fields enjoy, however, also conveys the impression that these are the occupations that the schools consider the most prestigious and this percolates swiftly through the undergraduate student body.

The highly visible recruiting drives by these companies on campuses created a great deal of buzz and the competition helped fuel this belief. The students learned to divide up careers as high status jobs versus "ordinary" ones.

Societal consequences for elite campus recruitment

There are societal repercussions for the institutional embrace of these select fields, Binder suggested.

"We find it problematic that a very small group of extremely well-resourced companies (e.g. Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Bain, McKinsey, Google, Facebook and LinkedIn) can gain such outsize influence on the cognitive landscape of elite college students, precisely at the point when students are just shaping their career aspirations."

"Currently," the report continued, "Harvard and Stanford facilitate structure and environments that encourage students to enter sectors that have all-too-recently demonstrated their lack of concern for other people and for society itself. Moreover, emphasis on these careers systematically puts smaller companies and startups at a disadvantage on elite campuses, even within the same sectors."

The report suggests this crowding out may be stunting the innovation and growth by funneling some of the nation's top students elsewhere while pulling them away from careers that could provide greater fulfillment such as public service, arts, education and traditional corporate management.

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