How Top-Performing College Grads Fall Into the ‘Prestige Career’ Trap

We funnel our highest achievers into consulting and finance — and it’s hurting all of us

Indra Sofian

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Photo: Austin Distel/Unsplash

In today’s society, there is a well-established prestige pathway. If you attend a high-ranking university, it’s very likely you’ll end up with a job in consulting and/or investment banking.

In 2017, nearly 40 percent of Harvard graduates took consulting or finance jobs. That statistic remains equal or higher across other Ivy League universities. Most of these graduates end up at the so-called top firms. In consulting, that’s McKinsey, Bain, BCG; in finance, it’s Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan.

This means thousands of bright, hardworking (and privileged) young adults are going to work for only a handful of firms every year. That’s a ridiculously high percentage of graduates concentrated in a couple of industries.

Over decades, these firms have thoroughly and meticulously infiltrated and transformed the culture of these universities, resulting in a staggeringly high conversion rate of graduates into their ranks. As a result, fewer candidates are left for other fields that need them, such as healthcare, education, energy, and environmental science. It’s a very real — and very damaging — brain drain.

Even worse, most of these students have no idea what they’re getting into. They’re doing it because of the prestige; landing one of these jobs is seen as the pinnacle of a status culture in which they’ve been immersed. Although many leave after about two years, driven away by the long hours and cutthroat culture, some stay far longer. Eventually, they realize that prestige and overachievement are no longer as important as when they were younger — but by then, they’re trapped.

To understand this pattern, we must first understand the average student on the prestige pathway. Meet Alice.

From a very young age, Alice is groomed to work hard and told she can achieve anything. She is at the top of her class, the leader of her school clubs, the perfect standardized test taker, the best instrument player, a solid athlete, and the one with just the right amount of volunteering experience. From testing to summer programs…

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Indra Sofian

Co-Founder of @soraschools. @GeorgiaTech '18. Talk to me about education reform, startups, diversity. Prev @startupexchange @contrarycapital @trueventures