A striking 36 percent of Harvard graduates in the Class of 2017 who entered the workforce went into the consulting or finance industries, according to survey data gathered by the Harvard Crimson. This is intriguing in light of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which states that the management consulting and financial sectors of the economy employ roughly 800,000 people and 8.5 million people respectively, or only about 6 percent of the employed labor force in the United States. The BLS defines these sectors broadly, and rightfully so. The financial sector houses activities ranging from banking and investing to real estate and rentals. Consulting is an even broader term, though management consulting can be loosely defined as advising organizations on how to improve their performance, in whichever field they operate. But the BLS data suggest that most people in the United States probably do not know anyone who works in consulting or finance. Most likely, things like mortgages, retirement funds, and credit card payments characterize how most people interact with consulting and financial institutions.  

In contrast, the Crimson survey data imply that a significant portion of Harvard students know someone who works, or is hoping to work, in consulting or finance. In the graduating Class of 2007, a whopping 47 percent of students entering the workforce went into consulting or finance. In the wake of the stock market crash, that number tumbled to 20 percent for the Class of 2009, but recovered over the next eight years and is now back near 40 percent. Why do Harvard students enter these fields at such disproportionate rates? A survey taken by a representative sample of currently enrolled students asked a range of questions about their views on, and experiences with, the consulting and finance industries. What emerged is a rough picture of how the Harvard student body relates to these industries, a relationship that comes with various implications.

Consulting and Finance at Harvard

38 percent of survey respondents reported that they were pursuing work in the consulting or finance industries, which mirrors the percentage of 2017 graduates who did so. Another 19 percent said they are not currently doing so, but are considering it. This suggests that a majority of Harvard undergraduates are either pursuing work in consulting or finance, or are considering doing so. Notably, the percentage of students pursuing work in consulting and finance differs by class year. Only about 23 percent of first-year respondents, and 16 percent of sophomores, said they were pursuing consulting or finance. Among juniors, the number skyrocketed to 57 percent, before leveling off at about 38 percent among seniors.

33 percent of respondents reported that they had heard of both the consulting and finance industries before coming to Harvard, while 40 percent had heard of finance, but not consulting. For the respondents who had not heard of consulting or finance before getting here, an overwhelming majority said that their first exposure came from classmates and friends. Outreach by firms, defined as information sessions, career fairs, or other initiatives often organized by the Office of Career Services (OCS), was another common way people were first exposed. Moreover, 59 percent of people who had heard of one or both industries before coming to Harvard did not consider working in them at the time.

These numbers are telling: one’s time at Harvard increases her or his likelihood of entering the consulting and finance industries. Most Harvard students had heard of finance before they got here, and some of them had also heard of consulting, but again, about a quarter of all students had not heard of either. Even among those who had heard of either of the industries before starting Harvard, most did not consider working in them at the time. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that the Harvard environment, primarily through peer groups and university-sponsored career services, nudges students toward working in consulting and finance.

Pull Factors

The OCS advertises a lot of industries, most of which do not generate nearly the interest that consulting or finance do. Once again, the pull of these industries seems quite clear from the survey responses. 80 percent of respondents who pursued consulting or finance listed “money” as a main factor in their decision. The two other biggest factors were “preparation for other lines of work”, at 66 percent, and “possibility of post-graduate employment”, at 61 percent.

The rationales boil down to good pay, opportunity to prepare for versatile careers down the road, and stability. But for all these perceived benefits, 75 percent of survey respondents who are pursuing work in consulting or finance said they do not plan on staying in the industries for more than five years. This hints at another appealing feature of these sectors: they provide high reward–large paychecks and stable employment–for relatively little commitment. No graduate degrees are required, and it’s easy to leave and go into a new line of work. At the same time, the fact that three-quarters of would-be consultants and financiers do not want to make a career out of these industries might suggest a latent lack of interest, or even uneasiness, with their choices. As it turns out, such uneasiness is not uncommon among Harvard students.

An Ethical Quandary

Despite the unusually strong popularity of consulting or finance at Harvard, it is easy to overlook that roughly 60 percent of Harvard students do not end up in these sectors. When survey respondents who are pursuing other job options were asked why they were not seeking work in consulting or finance, 59 percent listed that those industries simply don’t interest them, but 65 percent also said that they have a moral or ethical opposition to working in those fields. While the benefits of working in these industries are clear to many Harvard students, those who are not doing so for ethical reasons, the 65 percent of the 60 percent–about 39 percent overall–also have a strong rationale.

To begin with, the income distribution of Harvard families reveals that as a whole, Harvard students are disproportionately rich. According to Crimson survey data on the Class of 2021, 35 percent of students come from families making more than $250,000 in income, putting them in the richest 4 percent of US households (per Census Bureau data from 2014).  A full 17 percent of Harvard 2021 families make more than $500,000 annually, which is well above the infamous “top 1 percent” threshold. By contrast, only about 26 percent of 2021 families earn $80,000 per year or less, even though two-thirds of the US population falls into that category. These percentages are roughly the same for the other three classes currently on campus. If most Harvard families are already much richer than the average American family, one can only imagine how they compare to the average family globally, given the relative wealth of the United States compared to other countries.

The relative high-income of Harvard families is notable because it largely forecloses the possibility that students pursue consulting and finance out of the pressing need to make money to support their families and communities. There simply are not many students from low-income backgrounds at Harvard, so the relatively large percentage of graduates who pursue consulting and finance include many students who are already from high-income backgrounds. In fact, 71 percent of the survey respondents whose families earn an income of less than $80,000 are not pursuing work in consulting or finance, while 55 percent of respondents whose families make $250,000 or more are doing so. Rather than provide low-income students an opportunity to uplift their communities, the consulting and finance industries seem to primarily help rich families enlarge their already large share of the economic pie.

Needless to say, there is nothing wrong with being rich, or with weighing one’s career options by how lucrative they will be. But Harvard students should consider making a different calculation. Of the 17.5 million college undergrads in the US, only 6,700 go to Harvard. Deserved or not, society often places a hefty premium on elite, highly selective universities; thus, a Harvard degree brings social capital and connections that are not accessible to an overwhelming majority of the world’s population. Such privilege augments the message in Harvard’s mission statement, which calls on us to be “citizen-leaders” in our societies and use our skills to “best serve the world”. In light of this vision, the obvious question arises: who are students really serving by going into management consulting and finance, considering that 80 percent of US stock market value is held by the richest 10 percent of Americans? Many of the citizens whom the College wants Harvard students to lead or serve would rightfully hold a grudge against Wall Street for the 2008 market crash, during which US households lost an estimated $19.2 trillion in wealth and were never compensated for any of it.  

New Possibilities

Of course, Harvard students who go into finance are not individually responsible for the avarice of the industry as a whole, and the financial sector provides some essential services like commercial banking. But Wall Street is clearly not in the business of ‘best serving the world,’ given its track record of white collar crimes and risky financial activities that endanger the world economy. While consulting firms may be less likely to engage in fraud or directly influence people’s livelihoods, let alone have the potential to cause a catastrophe like the 2008 crash, the Harvard-to-consulting/finance pipeline is still regrettable. Even if the nearly 40 percent of graduates may not be doing something actively bad, they are passing on the opportunity to be the citizen-leaders our societies really need. There are countless unresolved issues regarding basic human rights and justice, in the US and every other country in the world, that desperately deserve attention from those with the various capacities to tackle them.

It is already unfortunate that the benefits of a Harvard education and degree are most accessible to a small group of disproportionately rich and privileged families. Hence, it adds insult to injury that many students forgo the opportunity to use those advantages to level the playing field in our society, instead committing themselves early on to fields whose ethics are sketchy at best.

Some initiatives could remedy the recruiting culture at Harvard. As an institution, Harvard could play an important part by no longer overexposing its students to these fields. Consulting or finance firms might still have a disproportionately large presence on the campus recruiting scene, given their resources and established relationship with the University’s career network. Nonetheless, OCS has the discretion to diversify the events they promote or accommodate, or even to more vigorously publicize opportunities outside those sectors.

On the students’ part, they should think carefully about whether working in consulting or finance is in line with their interests and ethical principles, and look deeper into options that advance social causes or benefit a larger segment of society. For instance, those interested in government or economics could consider working at public policy groups, major NGOs, or international development institutions. Those interested in financial management could consider working in the philanthropic sector, in which huge sums of money are moved around, but the object of investment is social good, not shareholder profits. Those who are interested in health and medicine but do not want to become doctors could consider working for nonprofit research or advocacy organizations, rather than for-profit insurance or pharmaceutical companies.

All of these career paths offer substantial pay, job security, and teach widely-applicable skills. More importantly, however, such alternatives fulfill Harvard’s vision for its graduates,  opening up new possibilities for Harvard to positively impact the world. Especially given its deeply elitist tradition, it behooves Harvard to work towards a new reputation for producing compassionate graduates who prioritize leaving the world better than they found it. This much revered–and also frequently reviled–institution has a critical stake in having its students use their higher education as a means of uplifting the less fortunate, not primarily as a gateway to wealth and power.


Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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