A poignant, slightly pleading, op-ed appeared in the Stanford Daily at the end of the summer from rising sophomore prospective econ major Lena Han. Surveying her peers, she realized that, though she was in the middle of her current summer internship, she felt like she was falling behind because many of her classmates had already secured next year’s summer internship. By summer of the prior year. Most of these internships were at investment banking, consulting, or tech firms. Many came attached with five-figure salaries, and, more importantly, the promise of a high-paying, likely six-figure, starting salary upon graduation.
What’s a lowly undeclaredliberal arts major to do? Though Han herself came to Stanford with little or no interest in a finance or tech career, the centrifugal force of the finance/consulting culture was creating gravitational pull on her future ambitions. What’s wrong with her, she wondered, when all of her friends seemed so certain that finance or consulting was the way to go? In a conversation after the article came out, Han told me: “Lots of kids come in with an interest in liberal arts. But the internship culture creates pressure for them to switch to tech or finance, which is a sure path to a job and a high salary. It’s really hard to buck the trend.”
How did this centrifugal force happen in the first place?
Anand Giranhiradas, in his recent bestselling Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World enumerates the ways that elite consulting firms seduce ambitious students. He points out that the firms prey on the FOMO of high achievers. For all their leadership skills that allow them to accumulate credential after credential, there seems to be a stark lack of confidence in this elite cadre. Many have become “excellent sheep.” Han writes: “For an image-conscious student body that has had the word ‘elite’ branded onto them since enrolling, many are drawn into pursuing these prestigious and ever-visible paths mindlessly.”
“Many are drawn into pursuing these prestigious and ever-visible paths mindlessly.”
What happened to college helping students learning to think for themselves, to take the road less traveled, to map their own path on the road to life? In a word: anxiety. Not only the clinical form, but economic anxiety born of disruptive technology (think Amazon), parental anxiety born of The Great Recession, and cohort anxiety born of a generation of high achievers who have learn to measure their self-worth by external tallies (how well did I do on the SAT? What’s my class rank? How many followers to I have on Twitter or YouTube?). Han laments “the security of knowing. Not having to explain what you’re doing to other people.”
The colleges themselves aren’t so much complicit in these trends as helpless to stop them. After all, at the end of each course, professors grade the students, famously with grade-inflated marks, but students grade teachers, too, with course and teacher evaluations, and a class shopping period at the beginning of each term. If schools don’t provide students the classes and majors they want, students will simply walk.
If it seems like the intellectually blind leading the intellectually blind, it is. Young people in the most vulnerable period of their lives, often away from home for the first time, with the chance to learn about themselves, the world around them, and life itself, are instead opting in ever-increasing numbers to postpone the self-reflective part of college and instead heap credentials onto their LinkedIn profiles.
If it seems like the intellectually blind leading the intellectually blind, it is.
I witnessed a career day at Stanford that celebrated one student who had complete fourteen internships during her four years on campus. Five years, actually. She co-termed to receive her masters degree, of course.
There can be no doubt in our ever-widening income-disparate economy that financially-oriented careers are among the most certain to be lucrative. The attractiveness of a high salary to a young person (and especially, her parents) is understandable. Student borrowers average $28,500 in student debt and enter a world with massively high housing and healthcare costs.
I was a liberal arts grad who decided on my major halfway through my junior year. In my journey, pre-med became pre-law became pre-entrepreneur. I had time and encouragement to grow. Times have changed, even high achievers need time and space to think about their life path. Nearly all of my fast-track techy and finance peers faced an existential crisis ten or fifteen years after graduation, while my liberal arts friends experienced most of their crises while in college, with a cohort of friends, professors and advisors to help guide them through it.
America is a land of possibility. College, elite or otherwise, had long been a place to begin to explore different aspects of that possibility. To lose that trait is to lose the American dream itself.
Source: Forbes – Leadership