Home > finance, news, rant > How Harvard is failing its students

How Harvard is failing its students

February 17, 2012

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.

Categories: finance, news, rant
  1. February 17, 2012 at 8:16 am

    Another problem is that those university or college kids are not exposed to lessons in volunteerism or caring for others. Those university/college students are never given the signal that it is rewarding to do something humanitarian (unprofit-driven). Finding work that is rewarding but unprofitable, is often seen as a failure and a waste of time – by the external judges. But aren’t these often the happiest people?


    • February 17, 2012 at 8:59 am

      Hm… I’m actually not so sure I agree. I think high school kids know their applications look better when they have done volunteer work. So in other words, they may well have done some, but for the wrong reason- namely, once again, to look good.


  2. February 17, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Thank you for posting this.


  3. JSE
    February 17, 2012 at 9:23 am

    It’s complicated. You’re right that just about every kid at Harvard is ace at taking tests and winning prizes, and the financial recruiting process is thus kind of comfortable — you enter a contest and see who wins.

    On the other hand, I don’t have the impression that it’s typically the most grade- and test- obsessed kids, or the kids with the best grades and test scores, who go into finance; I would have guessed they disproportionately head for law school and graduate school and McKinsey. (I don’t see a way to get real data on this, though.)

    But I think you’re more right than Klein; Harvard graduates don’t typically lack marketable skills. They can work hard (harder than they can when they entered) and they can write well (much better than when they entered.) And of course they (ok, we) are champion bullshitters. (We prefer to say “we learn to speak with authority on a broad array of topics.)

    That said — my experience is that Harvard (both the institution and the student culture) very strongly emphasizes the importance of public service, the need to find out what you truly care about, and the goal of building a life that combines personal fulfillment with usefulness to the world. Why do you think all those Harvard kids are taking those unmarketable history and political science and English and economics classes? Because they truly think they’re going to have a chance to help shape the world’s future, so they’d better learn how the world actually works now.


  4. ca
    February 17, 2012 at 12:13 pm

    it’s not only about what you’re good at, it’s also about what makes you happy.

    This is a complicated statement. So, when I was at Harvard in the late 90’s, I felt like all I heard was that we should follow our passion. That turned out to be the wrong thing to say to those of us (many of us) who didn’t have an all-consuming passion that made us ecstatic all the time. I actually think that this might have contributed to the number of people working in the financial fields and going to law school and even Teach for America — if you weren’t going to love what you did with an all-consuming passion, you might as well do something that made a lot of money and/or that other people respected and/or that you happened to be really good at.

    What would have benefited me more to hear is that there are many things that can make one happy, and one’s career is one of them but by no means the only one. I now have a job I like but don’t love, that pays well but not superlatively, and a life that makes me very happy, but for a long time I wrestled with the idea that I could have a happy life that didn’t revolve solely around a career.

    (There’s also a lot of external pressure. I used to complain that it was impossible for a person to go to Harvard and be a plumber because of societal disapproval. I’m not immune; if I heard one of my friends had become a plumber, my first knee-jerk reaction would be to think, Wow, what a waste of a Harvard education! Even if it’s not!)


    • February 17, 2012 at 3:01 pm

      You’re right. I’ve been told my posts are too long as it is, but if I’d allowed myself to be wordier I’d have said more about “being happy”, and I’d mean something like what you mentioned- balancing a bunch of different things, including having a family etc.



      • March 2, 2012 at 3:09 pm

        I would add to this – searching for a ‘meaningful’ life is a better descriptor than ‘happy’. It’s easy to get confused over this based on the words used.
        I’ve heard this from psychologists and other students of humanity.
        Pursuing happiness will assure you will never get it. Pursue the things for a meaningful, fulfilling life and the happiness will follow.

        Thank You for the insights in Your posts mathbabe. Informative.


    • Dan L
      February 17, 2012 at 3:35 pm

      I agree. Few people both (a) have a passion, and (b) can realistically turn that passion into a career. Even among the Harvard elite. But almost everyone needs a career. The real challenge is not to figure out what you love, but rather to find a career that matches your interests, your skill set, and your desired lifestyle. This is really very difficult, since it’s nearly impossible to know what a job is like until you actually live it.

      The hypothetical Harvard plumber is interesting, because one might compare him to the not-so-hypothetical Harvard stay-at-home mom. (I’d be curious to hear mathbabe’s opinion on that issue.)


  5. February 17, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    You have a very perceptive viewpoint, mathbabe. It further seems to me that wannabe authority-pleasing Ivy Leaguers have been deceived by an academia that is chronically delusional. Lately that delusion is most apparent in the promoted worldview that economic risk can be balanced away by handy, easily coded algorithms (borrowed from fluid dynamics) based on bell-curve assumptions that are completely invalid in a Black Swan, fat-tailed world.

    When key Banksters indeed realized the error of their ways, they found themselves, and their minions of math-skilled Ivy MBA’s, swirling in a vortex of doomed collapse that could only be delayed by an incredibly complex system of deception and criminality, ultimately salvageable only by ongoing bailouts at horrendous cost to gullible taxpayers in a victimized and shrinking middle class.

    The resolution of such a delusional mess is yet to be played out, now developing on a worldwide stage propped up by a delicate house of cards based on the sands of bad math.


  6. Dan L
    February 17, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    I think it’s silly to think that Harvard students like on-campus recruiting because they just love formal application processes. No, they like on-campus recruiting because it is EASY. It’s the path of least resistance. I’m pretty sure that random state school kids also prefer to find jobs through on-campus recruiting. It’s a perfectly natural and even rational way to look for a job if you do not already have a specific career path picked out.

    It’s possible that Klein thinks that Harvard should help students to choose careers. (But I disagree.) In any case, I don’t understand what it is that Klein is advocating. Is he saying that we should dispose of the liberal arts education, or supplement it with job training, or what?

    And where did he get this idea that Harvard students go to Wall Street because they feel unprepared to make any other contributions to society? I think that the complete opposite explanation is more likely: Most Harvard students believe that their big brains are able to handle a wide variety of jobs, so they want a job that they know requires a big brain (and pays accordingly) and respects their big brain enough to learn on the job. Recruiting at Harvard is a useful way for a company to signal that they want big brains and are willing to pay for them.

    Finally, I mildly object to your tone of condescension in saying that Harvard students are “professional test-takers” who, “if you took away tests and grading systems…, would be desperately unhappy, because that’s how they’ve been trained all their lives to think about their self-worth.” The first statement may be true in the limited sense that *all* students are essentially professional test-takers, and Harvard students are good at this profession, but the second statement is just BS armchair psychoanalysis.


    • February 17, 2012 at 3:26 pm

      Yes I think all kids are being trained nowadays to be professional test takers. But I think that the really successful ones are particularly dependent on that system.


      • AZ
        February 18, 2012 at 2:00 pm

        I think your diagnosis is somewhat accurate, but Dan L is closer to the mark. Most of the people I know in college are not really “test-takers” in that they are obsessed with various scores and concrete achievements. In fact, because there are so many people with impressive achievements at Harvard, I think a lot of people become less achievement- and test-oriented in college.

        There is still some pressure to keep up with your peers, but I doubt most people are stuck in the mindset of trying to please or impress others. After all, we were also taught to “follow our passion” growing up. It’s just that following your passion is not easy; it’s much easier to follow the well-worn paths, and Harvard doesn’t actively force you out of that.


    • RTG
      February 17, 2012 at 6:06 pm

      I think that the point about on-campus recruiting being easy is an important one. I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it entirely as the “path of least resistance”, though. I also think that even a very motivated student has a difficult time identifying jobs and career paths that are not presented to them at their university. At both my “elite” undergrad and grad schools, I found the school career services to be useless for anyone who didn’t want to select from a narrow set of careers (e.g. banking, consulting, engineering in the defense-industrial-base, or a few regimented volunteer programs like TfA or Peace Corps).

      I’m not sure what the university’s responsibility should be in career placement, but the reality is that most people want and need a job after finishing school. If the most obvious options are in a few narrow fields that have understandable paths to entry, that is where students will go. For myself, I’ve had a fairly unusual path, and I have relied heavily on the alumni networks of both my alma maters to navigate it. But I’m also less shy than average about reaching out to strangers. I do think it’s a problem that people leave “elite” schools feeling as if they are “big brains” who are somehow more entitled to large paychecks as a result. Many of the most difficult and challenging jobs I’m aware do not pay nearly as well as Wall Street and imho contribute much more to society and the economy. I did find an incredible sense of entitlement at both “elite” universities I attended, though I also encountered some very dynamic individuals who are committed to making a contribution to society.

      If I were to offer up any sort of solution, I think it would start by revisiting the indoctrination which begins the day you set foot on campus telling you that you are the special chosen ones who are smarter and more capable than all those you beat out to get there. The truth is that while students at these universities are certainly, on average, smarter and harder working than the general population, they are not each smarter and harder working than everybody who did not attend one of these universities. And social class is a huge factor in determining who “gets in”. I think if people viewed being able to attend one of these schools as both a privilege and a responsibility to make the best use of the very limited resource they were lucky enough to get, they may be more inspired to think creatively about how to use their education to both social and personal benefit.


  7. February 17, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    I’m trying to figure out if we attended different Harvards. The students that go into finance are primarily concerned with social sorting themselves into society. There is no easier way to elevate your status in New York society than investment banking, hedge funds, private equity, etc. The only way to curb this process is to either reduce the compensation in finance or increase it in other fields.

    And I also think that universities need to teach more skills. Too many of the graduates from Ivy League institutions (and other schools) can’t build basic statistical systems or experiments. That’s crazy. How are they supposed to function in the empirical world?


    • Jess
      May 13, 2012 at 1:53 pm

      I agree wholehearted on both points…
      we have a culture of A listers and idolization. People go to wall street to get these perks in society. It’s a huge motivator.
      When I left school, I couldn’t have told you what I was good at besides “managing”, working in groups, doing presentations. One of my frustration was that I didn’t know how to build/ do anything tangible. Our educational system needs to find a balance; What we learn in school right now is great, but it’s incomplete.


  8. Mary
    February 17, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    Here is a great story of a Harvard applied math major who started out in management consulting (another path of least resistance pursued by a number of Harvard grads) but who quickly changed course into something completely different:


  9. February 18, 2012 at 2:12 am

    That’s the American dream gone all belly up the wrong way. Money over passion. Over here in Singapore things are equally depressing too. God bless. Peace.


  10. Rocinante
    February 18, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Fine post. It reminds of William Deresiewicz’s elegant essay on “The disadvantages of an elite education”:



  11. SIlverleaf
    February 18, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    A couple of observations:

    1. This issue isn’t at all new– it may feel this way, but I’m in my 50’s, and there wasn’t much serious attention paid to helping students think about options then, either, at the most selective schools.
    2. My kids go to a school that emphasizes “fit” during the college selection process– but some NYC private schools focus on “this is where we think you should go, which, incidentally, makes us look good”. As parents, we aren’t doing as well as we should by our kids, when we also adopt that mindset.


  12. Carlos
    February 18, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    All US colleges fail their students, for the same reason. There is far too much emphasis placed on the attainment of a degree. Education is an assumed by product of getting said degree. Anybody in business today, can tell you several stories, about the so called educated, that can’t find their own behind with both hands. Many degrees have become nothing more than tuition receipts. I’ll take a few years of relevant experience, over fancy wallpaper, any day.


  13. itsik
    February 18, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    I think that all references to the young adults that make up the student body as “kids”, as in your post and some of the responses, have biased this discussion. It framed these talented men and women as social engineer-able, responsive to Pavlovian cues of approval from parents and test scores. Unfortunately, this framing is an idea with self-feedback that made it into a convention in current American culture, and that’s a deeper problem in local higher education than particular career choices this may induce – all due respect to your Wall Street vendetta not withstanding.
    I would claim that Saverin, Moskovitz, Hughes and that other guy provide empirical evidence that at least some Harvard sophomores do have the opportunity and the skills to leverage into worldwide impact, not to mention billionairehood. Stop calling them kids, Mathbabe.


    • February 18, 2012 at 1:15 pm

      Hmm.. I see what you mean. But I am not using “kids” pejoratively. They are in fact responsive to Pavlovian cures of approval, and so am I and so are you, but they are particularly trained to be so, and that’s actually what I’m complaining about. I’d like us to leave them alone and not try to manipulate them when they are vulnerable to manipulation, and moreover I’d like us to stop setting them up to be so vulnerable to manipulation.

      “I would claim that Saverin, Moskovitz, Hughes and that other guy provide empirical evidence that at least some Harvard sophomores do have the opportunity and the skills to leverage into worldwide impact, not to mention billionairehood.” Of course! But that’s not my point. The question isn’t whether they will impact the world (they will), the question is whether they will do it on their own terms. I’d also like them to try to make the world a better place rather than simply having an impact or making a billion dollars, but the point is I’m not in charge of their destinies, they are, and that’s a good thing.

      Another commenter on google+ suggested we use the evidence of successful investment bank and Teach for America recruiters as a cue to start more recruiting and more “application processes” and in general make more career tracks transparent. I can see where she may think this is a good idea, and I definitely think it would work (and kind of already does if you think of grad school in this spectrum). But I’d like us to also consider backing off altogether and letting these young people (see I didn’t say “kids”) decide for themselves what to do.


  14. Jay
    February 18, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    To be honest, I’m a bit worried about these kids because they seem much too trusting of authority. All their lives up until graduation they’ve been the willing subjects of (on the whole benevolent) authority. In the real world, your boss doesn’t always have your best interests at heart. I’ve had plenty of bosses who happily let their employees break the law as long as the blame wouldn’t get passed uphill. These kids need to learn to protect themselves (and each other).


  15. inciTed
    February 18, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    Harvard’s close ties to the Establishment tend to bias most undergraduates toward careerism (in the sense of acting always with an eye toward “looking good”), even when they intend a career of public service. The currency they seek is always power, regardless whether that is “monetized” (as the current vulgarism would put it), and the ideology to which they are generally blind is the myth of meritocracy.


  16. Tiercelet
    February 19, 2012 at 1:09 am

    See, I’m with your Google+ commenter. We apply to these kinds of programs because you can figure out how to get these jobs. There’s a process; they’re there, they’re available.

    I expect you would find that many young people (and not so young people) would love to do a wide variety of things — but they have zero idea how to get there, and at elite schools the assumption is that career services are pretty much irrelevant (“everyone will get a job anyway!”) and the staff live down to those expectations, just farming it out to the small number of fields that actually do on-campus recruiting.


    • February 19, 2012 at 6:54 am

      Fair enough, there should be more paths cleared for more different things besides grad school and investment banking. Then at least more voices would perhaps drown out some of the investment banking ones.


  17. Itsik
    February 20, 2012 at 1:58 am

    Still don’t get the point about “test-takers”. In my book, success in tests has positive, not negative correlation with life skills that would help judicious decision-making regarding one’s career. To the degree this correlation fades at the extreme high end, admissions committees are aware of that and make decisions primarily based on other factors. Smart and self-driven individuals have the common sense to grasp what Pavlovian reward would actually do them good, and what to resist. If they go to investment banking in their pursuit of happiness I would not pin it on recruiters, parents, Harvard or anyone but the adult making the choice. BTW, I was intrigued enough to lookup some data, and it seems (http://www.payscale.com/best-colleges/harvard-university.asp) that while financial analyst categories are abundant, it seems quite a few are CEOs (unlike Cornell or NYU), which I would assume would be in a small company, without the formal application and recruiters. Finally, I must say that some crimson graduates seem to do better making a living 3 miles north of Wall St., say at Madison Square Garden 🙂


  18. Jess
    May 13, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    I went to stern for UG (’01-’05), I went with the intention of majoring in Economics (liked the mixture of social science and math). I however, had no idea of what the realities of the business world were or what I wanted to work in after college. Stern is a great school and I learn a lot, but life in school was an extension of wall street, it seems like we were surrounded by the world of finance and being in wall street was what it was all about (money, excitement, recognition). Everyone co-majored in finance (I myself switch majors for a while), and everything was very competitive. I’m an introvert, so I obviously didn’t fit very well in this environment nor would have had at a wall street firm; I understood that it was not the place for me and looked for other career options. This however, did not stop me from feeling for many years like a loser, I had been surrounded with this implicit knowledge that the best went to work at wall street. If you didn’t it was because you were not good enough, you didn’t make the cut. At least that’s what it seems to me. Fortunately, I think this is changing, there are now more focus on social entrepreneurship (a good compromise to b. students as it’s more long term sustainable [profits], competitive and action oriented than regular volunteerism), the crisis I think has taken some of the luster from finance, success of facebook, google, etc has made a lot of people dream of creating their own companies, all in all student’s finance myopia is being eroded.


    • May 13, 2012 at 1:50 pm

      Such a finance situation in today’s undergraduate universities reminds me of many medical wannabe’s in the ‘sixties : aggressively competitive (i.e. much cheating) premed students looking forward to mansions, golf Wednesdays, and Mercedes and/or sports cars, with minimal interest in helping people to get or stay healthy.


  19. September 4, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    You know, I *wish* I had gone into finance, specifically because that’s apparently the only passion that I have.

    Specifically, I really enjoy looking at massive credit bubbles, saying “Hey! You’re all engaged in mass delusion!”, opening up a trading account, and then playing with the stock and bond markets.

    I suppose it’s more accurate to say that I have passion for economic history and watching manias, panics, and crashes.

    I’ve even though about writing a few plays about wall street. I doubt that I will ever do that because I’m not sure I understand the human condition well enough to write a good play.

    I really wish I had discovered this before I did an undergrad in chemical engineering and gotten a law degree.


  1. February 18, 2012 at 3:54 am
  2. February 19, 2012 at 10:01 pm
  3. February 20, 2012 at 8:01 am
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