Big Paycheck or Service? Students Are Put to the Test

A prominent education professor at Harvard has begun leading “reflection” seminars at three highly selective colleges, which he hopes will push undergraduates to think more deeply about the connection between their educations and aspirations.

The professor, Howard Gardner, hopes the seminars will encourage more students to consider public service and other careers beyond the consulting and financial jobs that he says are almost the automatic next step for so many graduates of top colleges.

“Is this what a Harvard education is for?” asked Professor Gardner, who is teaching the seminars at Harvard, Amherst, and Colby with colleagues. “Are Ivy League schools simply becoming selecting mechanisms for Wall Street?”

Although others have expressed similar concerns in recent years, his views have gained support on the Harvard campus with students, faculty, and even the new president, Drew Gilpin Faust, who made the topic the cornerstone of her address to seniors during commencement week. Dr. Faust noted that in the past year, whenever she has met with students, their first question has always been the same: “Why are so many of us going to Wall Street?”

On other campuses as well, officials are questioning with new vigor whether too many top students who might otherwise turn their talents to a broader array of fields are being lured by high-paying corporate jobs, and whether colleges should do more to encourage students to consider other careers, especially public service.

As Adam M. Guren, a new Harvard graduate who will be pursuing his doctorate in economics, put it, “A lot of students have been asking the question: ‘We came to Harvard as freshmen to change the world, and we’re leaving to become investment bankers — why is this?’ ”

In her speech, Dr. Faust highlighted the results of a spring survey by The Crimson, the student newspaper, which found that about 20 percent of this year’s graduates were heading into financial services and management consulting, down from about 22 percent last year.

She acknowledged the appeal of the jobs — the money, the promise of stimulating work, the security for students of knowing they will be working alongside their friends, a commitment of only two or three years. She urged the students to search for measures of personal success beyond financial security, despite “the all but irresistible recruiting juggernaut.”

In his commencement speech last month at Wesleyan University, Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, voiced a similar theme when he sounded an impassioned call to public service, and warned that the pursuit of narrow self-interest — “the big house and the nice suits and the other things that our money culture says you should buy … betrays a poverty of ambition.”

Universities are so concerned about this issue that some — Amherst, Tufts, the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvard, for example — have expanded public service fellowships and internships. “We’re in the business of graduating people who will make the world better in some way,” said Anthony Marx, Amherst’s president. “That’s what justifies the expense of the education.”

This year, Tufts announced that it would pay off college loans for graduates who chose public service jobs. And officials at Harvard, Penn, Amherst, and a number of other colleges say one reason they have begun emphasizing grants instead of loans in financial aid is so students do not feel pressured by their debts to pursue lucrative careers.

In an interview this spring, Dr. Faust held up as a model Teach for America, the nonprofit program that has recruited large numbers of students at top colleges to teach in low-income schools for two years. With 9 percent of Harvard’s senior class applying to Teach for America this year, 37 students made the cut.

One of the seniors that Dr. Faust met with in the winter was Dhaval Chadha, who wanted her support for a “diversity in careers” forum he was organizing. Mr. Chadha, 21, who grew up in India, will spend the next year on a fellowship in Brazil, working with an antipoverty group in preparation for what he says will be his career in public service.

“I don’t think a lot of people at Harvard know what a hedge fund or a consulting firm is when they start,” he said. But then, he explained, juniors and seniors being recruited come back from expensive dinners out and “start throwing salaries around,” and students begin to understand that “there’s already a kind of prestige attached to working for those people.”

“It’s like applying to college all over again,” he added. “‘I applied to 8 to 10 Ivy League colleges, and I got in here. I applied to these 40 companies, and I got into these ones.’ It’s exactly the thing that appeals to the Harvard competitive spirit.”

Evgenia Peeva, who will be working for McKinsey, said: “You have to be part of the competition. You have to prove to yourself and everyone else that you can do it.”

Bryan Barnhill, a Harvard senior from a public high school in Detroit, took a semester off and will graduate next year. “Some people say it’s a selfish thing to do,” he said, referring to the lucrative jobs. “They say you should be using your talent for something beneficial for your community. Terms like ‘corporate whore’ would be tossed around.”