The Ivy League, on Wall Street or the Supreme Court

Examining an intimate--perhaps too intimate?--connection

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The hubbub over the SEC suit against Goldman Sachs and the battle over financial regulatory reform have given new life to one of the cocktail topics of the past year: Wall Street's recruitment of top Ivy League talent. The steady stream of recent graduates to the financial sector raises a discussion that neatly intersects with a related debate: the place of Ivy Leaguers in the Supreme Court. The two discussions are leading many to reexamine the recruitment process at Ivy League schools, the nature of these students, and the way the Ivy League brand is perceived in American society.

  • Good Recruiting Meets Student Anxiety On Saturday the Wire covered Ezra Klein's interview of a Wall Street alum and Harvard graduate, which Klein conducted to examine the "common [complaint] ... that [Wall Street] sucks up a lot of Ivy League talent that could be going toward more productive endeavors." The graduate pointed out that though investment banking had never been a goal of his, "the recruiting culture at Harvard is extremely powerful. In the midst of anxiety and trying to find a job at the end of college, the recruiters are really in your face, and they make it very easy." In this sense, it's not just about the lure of money: "it's about squelching anxiety in general. It checks the job box. And it's a low-risk opportunity. It's a two-year program with a great salary and the promise to get these skills that should be able to transfer to a variety of other areas." But there's also the matter of why Goldman went after a social sciences student:
Why Goldman thought I'd be good for investment banking is a very fair question. There are a lot of Harvard people at Goldman and they've put a lot of effort into recruiting from the school. They really try to attract liberal arts backgrounds. They say this stuff isn't so complicated, that you'll pick it up as you go along, that it's all about teamwork, that they have training programs.
  • Comparing Wall Street to Teach for America At the Attackerman blog, Dara Lind says that banks' nonchalant attitude about students' academic expertise reflects "good old Ivy League elitism: we don't care what you've learned, only that you've been taught how to think in the right places." Aside from arguing that this can lead to a dangerous way of thinking about the work you're doing, Lind points out that this is a similar attitude to that espoused by Teach for America recruiters, who are also "'really in your face,'" and snag anxious students.
The similarities between the ways elite college students are sold on managing America's money and how they're sold on managing its children tend to be pretty well accepted among people who've seen the recruitment processes in person. But it's not the sort of thing most people outside elite colleges think about. I don't think that public-school reformists will begin to fetishize complexity just because Wall Street financiers do, but I think it might be wise to think about the other problems that might develop from a recruitment process that tells the "best and brightest" that that's all they need to be.
  • The Character of the Students Harvard grad and blogger Matthew Yglesias jokes that "you can't properly analyze the Harvard to Wall Street pipeline without using the term 'douchebag,'" and points out that, in some ways, this holds true for Teach for America recruiting as well. But in particular, "there's a certain kind of person who walks into a room filled with people interested in working on Wall Street and people who do work on Wall Street and says to himself (and it's no coincidence that it's almost always himself) 'these are the kind of people I want to align myself with.'"
  • 'Lazy Credentialism' Scott Lemieux uses this term over at the Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog when talking about Supreme Court picks, but it intersects neatly with Lind's point about caring about schools, not actual majors. Lemieux says Ivy League graduates' "utter domination" of the Supreme Court "reflects more of a lazy credentialism than a genuine meritocracy."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.