Is There a Brain Drain of Stanford Students?

“Excellence alone without humanity is worthless.” – Harold Koh

The Haas Center, located right off the southeastern rim of Campus Drive, has a respectable motto: choosing action over apathy since 1985. I attend SIG meetings there every Tuesday evening, and as our group finishes, STAND, an anti-genocide group, hurriedly shuffles in. An outsider might applaud how well-used the facility is, indicating Stanford students’ commitment to public service.

Just 20 feet away, though, is the Career Development Center. In my most recent experience, I attended a workshop on summer internships and witnessed a line overflowing out the door. CDC’s staff actually had to turn people away. I have never seen the Haas center in such hot demand.

This anecdote raises a question about Stanford students’ priorities. There seems to be hugely disproportionate investment in careerism over service: what should we make of this?

This question was the subject of a recent SIG policy lunch, led by Professor Rob Reich of the Political Science department. Reich discussed what we should make of the apparent “brain drain” of liberal arts students entering into finance and consulting careers.

This “brain drain” is in fact readily apparent. Based on the CDC’s destination survey—a list that catalogues the careers of Stanford graduates yearly—roughly 30 percent of graduating students go into finance or consulting.

Stanford is not unique, though. Jobs in public service are among the least popular employment options in elite universities across the nation. Top tier schools report vast percentages of students who enter into financial industries. At Princeton, for example, 35.9 percent of students went into finance in 2010, the most recent year available. Similarly, at Harvard, nearly 30% of the student body went into careers in finance and consulting:

These disproportionate percentages raise ethical questions about the role of universities in civil society, the responsibilities of students like us at Stanford, and what kind of position the University should take, if any, on this issue.

“I don’t mean to be questioning the social value of the finance industry or the management consulting industry per se. What I mean to be asking is, whether there is social value for society when 50 percent of elite undergraduates… apply to those industries” said Reich.

“It’s the aggregate flow of the human capital that I’m asking about.”

Reich posited three hypotheses to explain the disproportionate investment in finance and consulting industries among Stanford students.

First, he raised the highly developed recruitment process used by these industries. The process is extremely structured and accessible, including numerous information lunches on campus where attendants are indulged in good food and flattery.

In a Facebook forum on Reich’s page, discussing this issue, students echoed this explanation.

“I think it has a lot to do with how clear the path is…. they recruit on campus, the job description is clear, people on campus know the companies etc. If you want a job in say education reform, other than TFA, there is no clear path to get there,” said one Stanford student, whose name was kept anonymous on the thread.

Second, he posited pure material interest. This motivation raises the ethical concern most sharply; what should we make of our culture of higher education when our society’s most talented people choose careers on the basis of self-interest so distinctly? Stanford’s Founding Grant states that purpose of the University is to “promote public welfare by exercising influence in behalf of humanity and civilization.” If a hugely disproportionate share of the student body enter finance and consulting just to make a ton of money, are we making good on this promise?

Reich’s third hypothesis is more sympathetic; students enter finance and consulting in such disproportionate shares because they want to acquire broadly transferable skills, perhaps even for socially conscious industries and endeavors.

Reich, however, pushed back on this idea. He recounted conversations where he asked students why they chose finance over public service: “They often have a story about all the skills I’m going to get. And I say, what skills are you going to get?

That’s when, in my experience, students begin to fumble,” he continued.

“They resort to very abstract things like, ‘working for in these industries will be good whatever I want to do in life’. While that sounds plausible, there’s nothing concrete there.“

In a report published by the Yale Daily News, Kevin Hicks, former dean of Berkeley College, outright rejected the skills acquisition thesis on its face.

“Everyone knows what the skill set is for most entry-level consultants: PowerPoint and Excel. Most firms are looking for people who will stay up until 3 a.m. seven nights a week making slides for a partner who goes home to Wellesley for dinner every night at 5 p.m. — and who will do so thinking that they’re ‘winning.’ Look at it this way: most firms assume that you’ll leave for law school or business school within three years, and they invest in your training accordingly. Quality mentoring when you’re young is worth whatever you pay for it. Sometimes that means less money; sometimes that means less of a life beyond work. But quality mentoring is not going to be delivered by someone who is 26, and just one tidal cycle ahead of you.”

Reich aired another take on the issue, aimed more at challenging students to think through the implications of their choices:

“I mean this as an open question. Its seems as if you are delaying any consequential career decision for two years by taking one of these gigs, and you continue to be this white-hot dense blob of human capital that you can direct anywhere. At some level, you have been hoop jumping your whole life to come tStanford already—do you want your final aspiration to be an all-purpose human capital blob. I’d be disappointed if that were the end of the story.”

The entire discussion of what motivates students to enter finance and consulting—be it raw self-interest, or altruistically driven self-development—raises the question of what role the University should play to address the trend, if any at all.

Reich argued the University is not neutral. Based on reporting by the Daily, the CDC grants privileged access to companies for a fee, giving them more opportunities to recruit.

“That doesn’t seem like the university is neutral, letting students make up their own mind.” He said. “It sounds like [the university] is actively, through payments, letting some companies have preferred status.”

That’s just one aspect of the University’s policy however. The content of our curriculum is also relevant, as the University requires every student to take courses framed as education for citizenship. These, too, indicate the University’s active involvement in the kind of people its students become.

For Reich, though, character formation is tricky to pin down.

“Because I think character formation is not merely a choice we make individually as people at the university, or a choice the university makes as an entity—character formation happens through background norms and cultural expectations.”

Thus, he argued, “individuals and the university as a whole should deliberate about what kind of character the University’s background culture will shape.”

The SIG policy lunch was definitely a step in the right direction, but this writer believes that much more robust deliberation is in order if we want to live up to the moral vision articulated in the Founding Grant, and the moral obligation of our common sense.

*Gideon Weiler is the Executive Editor of The Stanford Review.  He can be reached at *

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