Occupied on Wall Street
Updated: Jul 24, 2021
How On-Campus Recruitment perpetuates our finance and consulting obsession.
By Michelle Cheripka
When I ask Rachel Bennett*, CC ’16 and a double major in visual arts and English, what she wants to be when she grows up, she says she wants to be an artist. But for now, she dons her business attire and sits on the benches within the office of the Center for Career Education (CCE), alongside the other undergraduates awaiting their On-Campus Interviews (OCI) with Ogilvy or Goldman. When I ask her why she even joined the On-Campus Recruiting (OCR) process in the first place, she says, “Panic.”
Last year, 3,377 students and alumni applied to jobs through CCE’s OCR program, which allows employers to come to Columbia to host recruiting events and interviews for internships or full-time positions. The search for what a senior might do with the rest of her life begins in September with the Undergraduate Career Fair, and the process continues throughout the fall and spring semesters.
There are several events that fall under OCR: career fairs, industry showcases, information sessions, and OCI. Kavita Sharma, Dean of CCE, describes how each of these events is catered towards the specific companies that attend, and their respective recruiting methods. For example, industry showcases provide an intimate environment for something like a publishing company, which might not have the resources or need for a wide-scale recruitment process; OCI, on the other hand, caters to the McKinseys, Amazons, BCGs, JPs, and BoAs of the corporate world that recruit many prospective graduates.
Because they’re looking for a larger class, it’s often those industries that dominate the OCR process. Spectator op-eds since 2004 have bemoaned CCE’s perceived narrow focus on the finance and consulting industries, arguing that it serves to push students into these jobs where they might have done other things.
Chickens and Eggs
Jim Geddis, SEAS ’16 and an earth and environmental engineering major, used OCR specifically because he knew its strengths were in finance, which he had decided to pursue after internships in the industry. But others who use OCR to get into finance don’t arrive with those expectations.
Julie Chen, CC ’16 and an economics major, who has gone through recruiting twice since her junior year, is going into consulting next year. She says she’s happy with her recruitment experiences, happy with consulting, but is unsure whether “it’s because I wanted to do finance and consulting, or if it’s because what was available to me,” she says. “I don’t know what came first, but I guess they did their job.”
The question of what came first is a difficult one. Does CCE privilege finance and consulting companies because those are the main industries interested in Columbia, or because those fields are what students seek out?
For a staff of 36 servicing five different schools, plus alumni, CCE’s limitations are obvious. Given the breadth of diversity in student interest, OCR companies actually provide CCE with manpower and services for students, thereby allowing CCE to focus on more programming.
It’s not as if CCE exclusively targets those two industries: according to Courtney Como, Executive Director for Employer and Alumni Relations at CCE, CCE targets and reaches out to firms based on criteria “including student interest, alumni presence, geographic location, position on various surveys including Forbes, Fortune Magazine, Diversity Inc. and others. A few of our industries or sectors of focus include Science, Government, Not for Profit orgs, Media and Engineering,” she said in an email.
Yet the other criteria she lists for OCR— “staffing needs, recruiting practices, hiring timelines, candidate profile and overall potential opportunities for Columbia students”—favor large companies who can take in a large batch of students in advance. Sharma says that for employers, OCR is “a very, very structured way of finding your new class of recruits,” adding that for employers, “it tends to focus around volume.”
The Path of Least Resistance
In these respects, it’s exactly like a process we’ve essentially gone through before—four years ago, when we were applying to college. Sharma sees this as a reason many students are attracted to the process. She says, “We’re talking about undergraduate students, who, [before] the next stage of everything they’ve moved on to” have experienced “quite a uniform process.” She says that for students, the college application process “translates to something like OCR and graduate school applications.”
There is a level of security and comfort in the process. The interviews are on campus, meaning that you don’t have to travel to and from multiple offices. Unlike with online portals, you know that your application is being read rather than “throwing it into a black hole,” says Emily Geiger, CC ’16, an English major with a special concentration in business management, says. There are extended deadlines to accept or reject a job offer. And for students who don’t know the answer to what they want to do with the rest of their lives, the types of companies offered through OCR often have a two- or three-year contract, a window in which they can explore that question more rather than think too hard about it now. OCR is stressful, competitive, time-consuming, and exhausting. But existentially, it’s easy.
Financial security is also an important factor. “A growing proportion of people have student debt and loans to pay off,” says Geddis. The firms large and rich enough to finance OCR can promise a correspondingly large salary. Though the stereotype of the moneyed banker frat bro has basis in reality, many recent graduates contend with student debt.
“While I’m applying for these internships, I could be applying for residencies and fellowships. Those are also things that excite me, but I also need to pay the bills,” Bennett says. “I have a lot of student loan debt.” If she were to leave college and pursue art immediately, she says, “there would be hardship. I don’t want to deal with that. I don’t romanticize poverty.”
That said, the salary is also about prestige. Sharma says “lucrative positions” make OCR “attractive,” not just for the money, but because of a brand of success. “We definitely know that these are brand names that our students attach prestige to.” Finance is “safe,” says Geddis. “It’s prestigious.”
If OCR analogizes easily to the college application process, then certain companies and industries analogize easily to the Ivy League. Looking for prestigious positions is something we have all, as Columbia students, been trained to do. And as Sharma says, the prospect of getting such an offer is, “for some students, a big reason for why they chose Columbia. Or it’s what they expect to go along with the education they’ve received here.”
A Culture of Expectation
But while that may be true of many students, it’s not true of everyone. “I mean, everyone knows that Columbia is a feeder into finance and consulting jobs, and so it makes sense that OCR mostly has those jobs,” Geiger says. She did not want to go into finance and felt unqualified for consulting positions, so looked at marketing. “But,” she adds, “I wish there were more kinds of jobs that I could have applied to through OCR.”
Chen says, “There’s this whole world of other jobs besides the ones you’re so focused on during this process, but … it felt like those were the only things I could be doing after graduation. To not come out of it with something [would feel] like you missed this huge boat that left, and it was your only chance to find such a job. And a lot of that has to do with how intense and quick the process is, where it’s all or nothing. It makes you very narrow-minded about what you want.”
The current situation creates an effect where students might well have other interests originally, but when those aren’t being served by OCR, finance and consulting snap up the majority of students attracted by OCR’s convenience and aura of respectability.
Daniel Liss, CC ’16 and Alumni Affairs Representative for Columbia College Student Council (CCSC), says that “for no other reason than that they’re not aware of the opportunities,” students “default” into the small number of finance and consulting companies that take in the greatest proportion of students each year.
According to data compiled by CCE last year, the top three industries for students in the Class of 2014 that reported their plans to CCE were finance (26 percent), consulting (12.4 percent) and tech (7.5 percent). Of the top ten hiring organizations, six were investment banks.
Why is it that such a high percentage of graduates are entering two fields? These trends become self-reinforcing, says Liss. “If all of your role models and your friends have gone to Goldman, that means you’re more likely to envision yourself at Goldman. And it also means that when you’re looking for a job, the people most likely to root for you on the other side are analysts at financial firms instead of technology or consulting or public service firms.”
The culture of expectation isn’t just in specific social networks, though, but the school at large. Geiger says part of the reason she began applying through OCR was because, “I kind of felt like it was expected. Particularly from … upperclassmen. I just knew that during the winter break of junior year, you start preparing for interviews or start applying to jobs. And then, once you’re back at school, for the next month and a half, you’re interviewing. So I just thought, that’s what I’m supposed to do and I did it.”
For students pursuing other fields, they must forge a path to a job on their own. “There is a path for artists to pursue careers, but we’re not given any sort of information on how to do that and so we’re basically left kind of floundering,” says Bennett. “With nontraditional careers, there’s more instability, so a little more guidance is absolutely necessary.” Whereas corporate firms can make themselves accessible, the onus is on students to be proactive in other industries.
Repeatedly throughout my conversation with CCE staff, they emphasize the large network of employers that they bring to campus, and the various methods by which we, as students, might have access to them. Sharma stresses the individual advising appointments offered by CCE. And outside of the OCR process, CCE does offer a wide range of opportunities.
The Columbia Arts Experience and Columbia Experience Overseas consistently receive high praise, as does the Kenneth Cole Community Action program. These programs provide opportunities in the arts, abroad, and through community service. Al Spuler, Executive Director of Administration and Planning at CCE, emphasizes that of the 2,300+ opportunities posted on LionShare last year, the nonprofit sector comprised the second-largest portion of these offerings (and only 16 percent were listed as unpaid). The largest, though, was finance. And it’s not just the volume of jobs that makes the difference: recruitment for finance and consulting is still perceived as an easier process to navigate.
Despite the weekly emails, students still criticize CCE for its alleged lack of opportunities, visibility, accessibility. Despite job postings on LionShare, it is perceived as a broken and disorganized system by those who use it. Despite CCE’s reassurances that they try to accommodate students’ interests, they enable a recruitment process that streamlines the pipeline to some industries, but not others, relying on students to be proactive in a way the future consultants and analysts of our class don’t need to be. CCE invites students to suggest employers in those weekly emails, but a large number of students delete the emails as soon as they see Niamh O’Brien’s name in the heading. So are these methods of programming actually a valid means of comparison?
As CCE tries to diversify the scene, a clear dichotomy emerges in the programming provided. Individual attention is given to finance and consulting jobs: there are specific sessions for ‘JP’ or networking events for ‘McKinsey,’ while ‘history majors’ or ‘the publishing industry’ get very generalized attention. In the very language CCE uses, the corporate firms are the most visible and prioritized, and therefore the perception remains that CCE only works for people going into finance and consulting.
If Everyone Jumped Off A Bridge…
In order to address some of these criticisms, CCE produced a report in 2013 that compared Columbia University to its counterparts at peer institutions. These results were never made public, so as to protect the privacy of the institutions used as comparative models within the report, but Dean Valentini did go on record saying that there was no significant discrepancy between Columbia and peer schools when it came to pushing its students into finance.
But just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it a good thing. Part of Columbia’s mission is to “advance knowledge and learning at the highest level and to convey the products of its efforts to the world.” What does it mean that more than a quarter of people who embody these efforts direct this knowledge and learning to Wall Street?
“Columbia always touts the Core Curriculum and its love of the humanities and being so well-rounded, and being able to think analytically, no matter what you’re doing, and then CCE is so ‘Here’s how you do an elevator pitch,’ and ‘Here’s how you network,’” says Chen. “But at the same time, it’s love of knowledge versus practicality, because if you think about what the function of CCE is, I think it’s just to get you a job. It’s not really for your love of Homer.”
But while CCE may just be one part of your undergraduate experience, OCR is an inescapable part of senior year even for those students who don’t participate. A culture irrefutably exists, one in which there is a pressure to enter a traditional career path. It perpetuates a belief and anxiety that the OCR process is the be all and end all of post-graduate employment opportunities.
Herein lies one of the major failures of the OCR process, and CCE as a whole. CCE does not do enough to acknowledge its own role in an undergraduate’s undergraduate career, not just their post-graduate one. It is possible and valid to chalk up some of the detriments of OCR to the infrastructure of different organizations, the difficulty in gauging what students want as well as their ability to be proactive, among other things. But CCE also does not take ownership of how the processes they support and validate contribute to this culture of anxiety on campus. Consequently, in trying to address students’ concerns of students, they approach it via employers’ recruiting strategies, rather than students’ perceptions towards the programming offered.
When I asked students about what could be done, Liss spoke about a CCSC initiative to get more alumni recruiting on campus; Bennett called for greater support from departments, whose professors often have the industry-specific connections CCE lacks.
A solution requires students to reevaluate how they see CCE’s role on campus. Are we here for an education or as a stepping stone for what comes afterwards? Are we here to have connections made for us? Does CCE have an educational obligation, or is it a material and professional obligation, where we feel entitled to high salary jobs because we go to a high tuition school?
Maybe the situation requires something else entirely. Geddis says, “We’ve always been set to follow this pre-determined path of ‘go to a good high school, get the best grades, do these extracurriculars.’ We’ve sort of been living off of a checklist and knowing what to check. Like, ‘Oh, we’re supposed to go to the best college, now we’re at that college, what do we do?’”
Those pre-determined steps, says Geddis, often lead to “finance or consulting or to an abyss,” because “we’ve never been taught how to properly think about what we truly want as individuals rather than what the next step is that we’ve been told to do.”
What if we hedged our bets a little more? What if we did things that weren’t as easy to understand? Students should take more calculated risks so that we can dive head first into the post-graduate abyss. This involves a fundamental shift in our perspective that CCE has nothing to offer except for finance and consulting, but also perhaps a refusal to rely on CCE to point us to the obvious way to get a job.
The problem with OCR is twofold, and it falls on both CCE and students. We need to be honest about what we want to be when we grow up. And if we don’t know, we need to search harder than the OCR homepage. And if CCE actually provides support for that answer, maybe we won’t all end up on Wall Street.
*Name has been changed.