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How the Ivy League brought us the financial crisis

Graduating Harvard University students attend commencement ceremonies in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Elite colleges like Harvard have steadily increased their efforts to admit low-income students in recent years.
Graduating Harvard University students attend commencement ceremonies in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Elite colleges like Harvard have steadily increased their efforts to admit low-income students in recent years.
Robert Spencer/Getty Images

Ezra Klein has an interesting but also exasperating piece at Bloomberg View about how the Ivy League continues to send graduates into high finance, law, and consulting because an Ivy League education doesn't prepare those students to actually do anything with their lives.

I'm not kidding. 

Let's allow Klein to present the case in his own words:

Wall Street -- like a few other professions, including law, management consulting and Teach for America -- is taking advantage of the weakness of liberal arts education.

For many kids, college represents an end goal. Once you get into a good college, you’ve made it, and everyone stops worrying about you. You’re encouraged to take classes in subjects like English literature and history and political science, all of which are fine and interesting, but none of which leave you with marketable skills [emphasis mine]. After a few years of study, you suddenly find it’s late in your junior year, or early in your senior year, and you have no skills pointing to the obvious next step.

What Wall Street figured out is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample mental horsepower, incredible work ethics and no idea what to do next. So the finance industry takes advantage of that confusion, attracting students who never intended to work in finance but don’t have any better ideas about where to go.

I'm honestly not sure what in the world Klein is talking about. I've never met anyone under 25 who says he or she wants to go into finance who hasn't been planning to do so since freshman year, and probably before. Maybe the Harvard sample is different; it does seem that going to Harvard may be the ne plus ultra for many who succeed in getting into America's most prestigious university. If this is how is is, then that's sort of sad. Life shouldn't peak at 18. 

But if this is true, then Wall Street deserves what it gets: insecurity and confusion, which it can then bend to its grim purposes. Not a lot of questions being asked about loading up on credit risk when your mortgage-backed securities business is doing so well! Don't want to do that! Never. Question. Authority. Until the whole thing falls completely to pieces.

As for the actual courses you take, and whether they leave you with "marketable skills," this is an even more troubling analysis. I can't say Klein is exactly breaking new ground here, unfortunately. You see this all over the place nowadays, the notion that there are two kinds of college education: the one that involves intellectual stimulation toward no obvious purpose; and the one that gets you a job.

"Marketable skills" is of course a pretty broad category. I don't know If Klein really means "marketable skills that will enable you to get a job that pays enough to cover your student loans and rent your own apartment" or if he has something else in mind. But essentially, when he talks about confused kids, he really means kids who haven't engaged in any meaningful long-term life planning.

This isn't a failure of the Ivy League. This is failure of their parents, who made getting into the Ivy League the measure of all things. If the endgame of that is turning your progeny over to Wall Street for proper finishing, then maybe you should have your parenthood card revoked.

Sending kids to college — no matter how good that college is — without a mature life-plan is a serious oversight. Courses are sort of irrelevant. The challenge is to take the mentoring that you're previously received from parents and, to a lesser degree, teachers and coaches, and raise it to a new level. That could come from a finance professor, an English professor, the faculty member who oversees the school paper, the guy who runs ROTC, or a squash coach.

Any student who winds up at Harvard saying "I don't know what to do with my life" and hopes to meander through classes with the idea that something will pop up probably shouldn't be at Harvard. The Wall Street rescue plan, rather than fixing this problem, should thus be seen as confirmation of parental cluelessness. 

Let me use the example of my own children. My youngest, Dante, is too small to know what he wants to be when he grows up, but my two older kids, Lucia (9) and James (6), are starting to get ideas. Lucia likes art and design and James likes money. Even this early, it's important for my wife and I to understand where these early interests, should they become careers or professions, lead. Before either James or Lucia even applies to college, I'd hope we'd have helped them understand what 60 years of being a designer or working in the money world would entail. They would then arrive at college with a plan — it would the first step on a road to adulthood, not the last.

Or, to borrow a motto from an organization that helped me prepare for life when I was a kid, the Boy Scouts: "Be prepared."

And Wall Street wouldn't be necessary. It would just be another option.

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