Chris Hopson | Harvard University
In December of 2017, Congressional Republicans passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the first major piece of legislation of Donald Trump’s presidency. One of the many controversial parts of the law is a new tax on large university endowments. A relatively small number of colleges and universities will end up having to pay this tax, but schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT are among them. These schools, and those like them, are highly selective, prestigious, and tend to be in areas that vote Democratic. Some pundits have speculated that part of what motivated Trump and his allies to target these institutions with a tax is a wish to take a symbolic stand against the stereotypical ‘liberal, coastal elites’ that have long been maligned. This stereotype has some merit. A disproportionate number of influential people in American politics and business did graduate from elite universities, most of which are in coastal, liberal areas. And colleges in general are increasingly developing a reputation as bastions of left-wing politics. But my experience as an undergrad at Harvard is that, though my campus might be socially liberal and lean Democratic, it is hardly a hotbed of progressive politics. Rather, the postgraduate trajectories of many of my classmates suggest that Harvard, and universities like it, can be better understood as launching pads for children of privileged families to land jobs at some of the world’s largest and wealthiest corporations.
After graduation, Harvard students disproportionately enter the management consulting, finance, and technology industries. A striking 50 percent of graduates in the Harvard Class of 2018 who are entering the workforce are going into consulting, finance, or tech, according to survey data from the Harvard Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper. Only four percent of 2018 graduates are going into government or politics, only 3.5 percent into public service or nonprofit work, and only 5.4 percent into education. These aren’t numbers one would expect from a progressive, left-wing student body. But the Class of 2018 is not an anomaly. Back in 2007, the year before the Great Recession began, a whopping 47 percent of Harvard graduates who directly entered the workforce went into consulting or finance alone. After the financial crisis, that number tumbled to 20 percent for the Class of 2009, but rose over the next eight years and is now back near 40 percent.
This is not to say that the Harvard student body is politically conservative. The same Crimson survey data of the Class of 2018 shows that “[n]early two-thirds of surveyed seniors identified themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘very liberal’, a figure roughly in line with previous years.” But the popularity of working for companies that are the primary beneficiaries of right-wing economic policy, and the unpopularity of public service or social justice work, suggests that the Harvard student body is more neoliberal than left-liberal. But there’s something notable about Harvard undergrads that puts the popularity of consulting and finance in a new, unfortunate light: we are disproportionately rich. Harvard’s own news sources have reported some striking statistics illustrating this. The Crimson reports that the median family income of Harvard undergrads is $168,800, which is over three times the median household income in the US. The Harvard Magazine reports that 15.4 percent of Harvard undergrads come from families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution of the US, and that Harvard enrolls “almost as many students from the nation’s top 0.1 percent highest-income families as from the bottom 20 percent.” It also points out that over half of Harvard students come from families in the top 10 percent of the income distribution, and over two-thirds come from families in the top 20 percent, while only 4.5 percent of Harvard students come from families in the bottom 20 percent. Put simply: Harvard is an unusually and lopsidedly rich school. This is notable for two main reasons. For one, it illustrates part of why class mobility in the US has come almost to a standstill. For better or for worse, and I would argue for worse, a degree from Harvard and other prestigious universities opens doors that degrees from other schools do not. This is part of the reason, and maybe the only reason, why Ivy League grads are overrepresented at the highest levels of politics, business, and other lucrative careers. It’s a shame, then, that most of the students who go here are from families who are already doing much better than most. Class mobility would be greatly helped if more people from middle-and-low income backgrounds went to schools like Harvard. Of course, there’s a chicken-and-egg problem, because having lots of disposable income enables parents to afford better schools, test prep, and extracurricular activities for their kids, all things that look great on college applications. The Harvard admissions committee can’t fix the systemic inequality of the American education system, as much as I’m sure they would like to. But nevertheless, it’s sad and unjust that children and families who most need the benefits of a Harvard degree are at such a disadvantage in getting them.
The other notable thing about the relative wealth of the Harvard student body is that it makes the popularity of corporate jobs that don’t help society all that much seem almost tragic. Because of the prestige of a Harvard degree, lots of Harvard grads end up in positions where they can affect meaningful change in society. The number of graduates from Harvard who end up in Congress, the White House, or on the Supreme Court makes that clear. So it seems to add insult to injury that so many Harvard grads, most of whom are rich to begin with, pass on the opportunity to help make the world a better place, and instead work for Wall Street firms. It isn’t hard to see that the moral and ethical track records of these firms are questionable at best, and literally criminal at worst.
When I’ve raised this concern at Harvard, one retort I often hear is that these jobs help many students from low-income backgrounds make money for themselves, their families, and their communities. To the extent that this is happening, things could be worse. Despite the fact that I consider industries like management consulting and finance to be drags on the social and economic health of society, if they must exist, better for them to aid in the redistribution of wealth. But there is compelling evidence that for every low-income student entering the consulting or finance industries, there are at least a few high-income students doing so as well. The Crimson reports that among 2018 graduates who were members of final clubs (exclusive, fraternity-like organizations that tend to attract the children of wealthy and influential families), 52 percent are entering consulting or finance after graduation, compared to just 29 percent of graduates who were not in final clubs. In addition, I conducted my own survey which produced a representative sample of Harvard undergrads in all class years, and found that a large majority of students from families who earn $80,000 per year or less are not pursuing work in consulting or finance, whereas a slight majority of students from families earning $250,000 per year or more are doing so. Rather than provide low-income students an opportunity to uplift themselves and their communities, the consulting and finance industries seem to primarily help rich families get richer. That is no accident, by the way. In 2015, Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management professor Lauren Rivera published Pedigree, a book detailing how elite professional services firms (like banks, consulting firms, and law firms) evaluate job applicants in a way that heavily favors students from high-income backgrounds, effectively making it easier for rich students (and harder for poor students) to get these high-paying jobs.
What does all this say about Harvard, about class mobility, and about the society we live in? Weaving that larger narrative is beyond the scope of this article, but one thing seems very clear. While the stereotype of elite colleges as places full of radical progressives opposed to free market capitalism has grown more popular in recent years, some evidence from Harvard College points in the opposite direction. There is an ironic alliance between elite, liberal schools like Harvard and elite, conservative corporate interests in Washington, New York, and Silicon Valley.