Is High Tech the Answer?

The way students talk about high tech, sounds disturbingly like how they talk about jobs on Wall Street.

Not all elite students head off to finance and consulting, of course. In fact, while we were conducting interviews at Stanford and Harvard this past year, “high tech” was the buzzword on a lot of students’ lips. This was true not only of students majoring in engineering fields but also of students in the social sciences, humanities, and physical sciences who wish to work on the business end of things.

Stanford has long had a reputation for offering its students a pipeline to Silicon Valley. But as tech becomes an increasingly cool career choice among high-achieving Millennials, Harvard is scrambling to catch up with its West Coast competitor, bolstering its offerings by building an engineering quad, beefing up its computer science department, and funding tech accelerators and incubators on campus. Computer science is the fastest-growing concentration at the university, and CS 50 (Intro to Computer Science) is the hottest class on campus.

This emerging interest in tech would be great if students were gravitating toward start-ups, where new jobs and innovations are hatched. But at both Harvard and Stanford, most of the interest focuses on established firms, particularly in the social media category, and the way students talk about the value of these jobs sounds disturbingly like students’ valorization of marquee-name, prestige jobs on Wall Street.

Foster, a student pursuing a concentration in computer science at Harvard, noted wryly, “I guess I’d define an ordinary job as anything that’s not working at Google, Facebook, McKinsey, or Boston Consulting Group.” Another student, Imogene, echoed Foster, saying, “It’s really unfortunate the way that Harvard students believe things should be. If you say you spent your summer at Goldman, that’s impressive. You say you spent your summer building a company that’s going to be a big thing, it’s not as impressive because it doesn’t have a name.” She went on, “If you want respect by name on Harvard’s campus, you go to Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.”

The desire to find a job that has high name recognition and an established tournament system remains as strong as ever. Silicon Valley and Bay Area titans are becoming the functional equivalent of elite Wall Street firms and management consultancies in terms of recruiting top students by playing to their sense of competitiveness and status anxieties. Moreover, the day-to-day duties that many bright young recruits perform at these firms is not actually much different than what they would be doing at JPMorgan or Bain, as the big tech firms like Apple and Google become increasingly preoccupied with various forms of rent seeking, from acquiring smaller companies and attacking rivals in court to borrowing money to buy back their own stock and minimizing taxes through the use of offshore banks.

Amy J. Binder

Amy J. Binder is a professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, where she studies higher education, politics, organizations, and culture. Her most recent books, Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives (coauthored with Kate Wood) was published by Princeton University Press in 2013.