How Harvard is failing its students
In a recent Bloomberg article, Ezra Klein argues that Harvard and the other Ivy Leagues are failing their students because the students end up confused about what they can do with themselves after college and end up going to Wall Street firms as a way of making themselves marketable. From the article:
For many kids, college represents an end goal. Once you get into a good college, you’ve made it, and everyone stops worrying about you. You’re encouraged to take classes in subjects like English literature and history and political science, all of which are fine and interesting, but none of which leave you with marketable skills. After a few years of study, you suddenly find it’s late in your junior year, or early in your senior year, and you have no skills pointing to the obvious next step.
What Wall Street figured out is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample mental horsepower, incredible work ethics and no idea what to do next. So the finance industry takes advantage of that confusion, attracting students who never intended to work in finance but don’t have any better ideas about where to go.
He then talks about how the investment banks makes the application process formal, which is something that these kids are good at, and also that Wall Street promises to build them into people with careers and options. He also points out that some kids go into other formal applicationed jobs like Teach for America, so it’s not all about the money, at least not for all of them, and he concludes by saying how Harvard should change:
My hunch is that we have underemphasized the need to learn skills, rather than simply learn, while in college. The fact that Teach for America — which pays almost nothing and can place its hires far from cosmopolitan hot spots — is one of the few recruiting systems competitive with Wall Street suggests that graduates are open to paths that aren’t remotely as remunerative as finance and aren’t based in New York or San Francisco. They’re just not seeing all that many of them.
Although I agree with some of his diagnosis, I don’t agree with his solution of learning more “skills” in college.
As an aside, as I learned from Karen Ho’s excellent book about investment banking, Liquidated, and also from people I’ve met, the skills you learn on Wall Street as freshmen analysts are primarily bullshitting skills and Excel skills. These most definitely should not be taught at college.
I think he is right about these kids being comfortable with the “formal process” of applying to investment banks etc., but I don’t think he dives deep enough into why this is true. The fact is, the kids who get into Harvard nowadays are, generally speaking, professional test takers. They are moreover dependent on outside metrics for evaluating themselves. If you took away tests and grading systems, these kids would be desperately unhappy, because that’s how they’ve been trained all their lives to think about their self-worth.
When I was a tutor at one of the undergrad houses at grad school, I was incredibly impressed with the international group of undergrads I was in charge of; their credentials, even at the age of 20, were amazing, and their knowledge and self-possession were stunning. Same with the high school kids I taught at math camp last summer. But one thing I saw time and time again was how much they needed to please some outside authority. It’s like they never decided whether they themselves liked their major or whether it was a good fit- it was instead about whether they’d be successful and whether it would be an impressive path for them. So, external metrics of success.
Here’s my diagnosis. These kids are vulnerable to Wall Street investment firms and to things like Teach for America because they have application processes at all. But life, normal adult life, doesn’t have an application process. You actually, at some point, need to figure out what you want to do and what makes you happy. You need to take a leap of faith that your native talents and desires will end you up at a reasonable and interesting place.
Actually you don’t ever have to decide that, you could just keep doing what you think looks good to other people and pleases your parents or friends, without regard to whether it fulfills you at all. That’s kind of what’s happening I think with the 36% of the Princeton undergrads going to finance.
As for what Harvard et al can do about this, I would suggest trying to send the message in one of their core curriculum classes, that it’s not only about what you’re good at, it’s also about what makes you happy. I’m not sure those kids have ever really been told that. Being told that might not make a huge difference, but it’s a good start.
And instead of teaching them new “skills,” they should be told about options outside of school, and meet people who are employed doing interesting things with their liberal arts education. Have them talk about the way they made their way there, forged a path, and felt insecure about doing something weird but did it anyway. In other words, present them with role models who are living out their lives on their own terms, with independent thoughts.