In Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz slams the Ivy League for having a "finance-first" culture. But it's not just Harvard grads who run to high paying industries, it's everyone.
College entrants, beware. Choosing your dream school might be the worst decision you’ve ever made. That’s the message from William Deresiewicz, author of the recently released book Excellent Sheep. The ex-Yale professor’s latest work blasts the Ivy League, and other similarly prestigious schools, for turning young, idealistic learners into the titular livestock, who end their time in college by wandering aimlessly toward Goldman Sachs.
The heart of the argument, which Deresiewicz summarized last month in an article for The New Republic, rests on the fact that about a third of Ivy Leaguers go into big business (namely finance and consulting) and not his preferred areas, which include the clergy, the military, politics, and academia. Schools like Harvard may teach their pupils, sure, but all they learn are the “analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions.”
In contrast, Deresiewicz says, public and lower-ranked schools like Wesleyan, Sewanee, and Mount Holyoke “have retained their allegiance to real educational values.”
So should Harvard‘s freshman class start filling out transfer applications? Not so fast. A closer look at the book’s claims reveals a sobering truth: Ivy Leaguers might be greedy little sheep eager to join the ranks of Wall Street—but no more so than students outside their hallowed halls.
In fact, the Ivy League simply is not unique in the way Deresiewicz wants it to be. Yes, it is true that 20% to 30% of elite college grads go into finance or consulting. But at Reed, a school Deresiewicz specifically uses as a model for a less money-hungry higher education, 28% of students went into business and industry—a category that includes consulting, finance, and other profit-heavy sectors—based on its 2014 alumni database.
That’s compared with 27.3% of Yale students who went into consulting or finance in 2012, 24.5% of last year’s Princeton class employed in finance, insurance, or professional services (including consulting), and 22% of Brown’s class of 2013 that entered finance, banking, or consulting. (These categories vary slightly since there is no standard method among colleges of grouping professions.)
Many public schools are no different. UCLA, a top ranked state institution, reports that 32% of its graduates go into business or consulting. Penn State, another public institution Deresiewicz mentions favorably, has even named its career services center after Bank of America. For those with an aversion to these industries, there aren’t many academic oases left.
Why do such a large portion of graduates everywhere rush to join the Morgan Stanleys of the world? Because they pay well and offer plenty of jobs. The financial services industry alone accounts for 7.9% of the economy and over $1.2 trillion; it’s so large that no small group of schools could ever hoard a significant share of it. According to data from NACE International and the U.S. Census, finance and insurance offer the 5th most jobs and the highest average salary of any sector.
Shockingly, students at Reed and UCLA seem about as likely to want a sustainable career and high incomes as their peers at Harvard. (And what’s wrong with that again?)
It’s also incorrect to assume that students at Ivy League schools are any less likely to go into more charitable trades. One might be surprised after reading Deresiewicz’s article to learn that the largest employer of recent Columbia graduates is not Goldman Sachs or J.P. Morgan, but Teach For America. Princeton, which has a reputation for sending grads straight to Wall Street, recently announced 22.6% of the 2013 graduating class is employed in the nonprofit sector.
Does this mean Ivy League schools aren’t often annoying and pretentious? Not at all (I should know, I went to one). But it does mean we shouldn’t label them as educationally deficient because their graduates behave just like everyone else. As MONEY’s own college rankings show, there are plenty of great schools, both in and outside the ancient eight. Choose based on educational quality, price, and yes, how employable students are after they graduate. And by those measures, the Ivies do pretty well.