People typically think of the time and money spent on higher education as an investment, made worthwhile by the high returns to education. In 2014, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York published a report finding that, while average wages for college graduates had fallen over the last decade, the wages of those without higher education had fallen even faster. The overall college wage premium, thus, is at an all-time high. Given that approximately 44.7 percent of the class of 2017 began their career earning over $70,000 per year — an annual wage $20,000 higher than the average starting salary of new college graduates across America — it is probably a safe bet that the returns to a Yale degree are pretty sound. All of this analysis, however, assumes the answer to a key question: returns for whom?
Ideally, education should be a good with positive externalities. Ideally, an educated population, equipped with skills, resources and networks of power, should benefit the communities around them. And all the signs would seem to point that way. Here, we browse through news articles on the world’s ailments and dissect systemic problems in our daily conversations, we hold protests about racism and inhumane immigration policies and we make dry references to and sarcastic jokes about climate change and corporate power.
Yet, at the same time, we are the do-it-yourself generation, and we want to feel like we are creating progress now, regardless of whether or not we actually are. The private sector — with its focus on words like impact and efficiency, with its ability to cater to our taste for speed and a select set of progressive causes — fits our impulses like a glove. Rather than working towards a set of long-term objectives or understanding the unsexy institutions related to a given issue, we are much more likely to let Facebook and Twitter, private technology giants, play the role of organizer. They capitalize on our momentary passions, allowing us to attend a one-time event or trend a hashtag for the sake of expressing our dissatisfaction without accountability. In doing so, we ignore sinister side effects of creating virtually gated, homogeneous spaces of people who think alike, who are rarely forced to compromise. Rather than considering a career within government bureaucracy, we are much happier to wander the corporate labyrinth, amassing the wealth we think necessary for donating to our passions. When our career paths vote for a system of moneymaking and philanthropy — a system of which the American upper class is so fond — we actively endorse a system where the all-encompassing power of money goes unquestioned.
Every year, there is an opinion piece that criticizes the flood of students entering consulting and finance. And despite the lack of originality behind this critique, the trend remains startling over time: while 40.6 percent of the class of 2014 now hold jobs in finance, consulting or technology, less than 9.7 percent of that class remains in the fields of public policy, politics, journalism and social service — combined. In 2013, approximately 10.4 percent of summer internships fell under the industries of banking, consulting and technology; last summer, over 25.8 percent of students took an internship in those areas. Over two-thirds of the most recent graduating class took jobs in the private sector. While I do not believe there is an inherent moral stigma that should be attached to the umbrella terms of public and private, this trend of increasing participation in high-dollar private sector jobs, by people ostensibly interested in solving societal problems, becomes more worrying when it coincides with our decreasing faith in public institutions.
Why? Because the issues we are concerned about — anti-immigrant sentiment, police brutality or the degradation of the public education system — are issues that require the strength of stable, strong public institutions. If we really care about breaking up big corporations, we would do better to pursue careers as antitrust lawyers for the Department of Justice rather than working for a corporation and comforting ourselves by donating to political candidates who will do the hard work of breaking up those same corporations for us. If we really care about modern-day American segregation, we’d support public spaces like parks and libraries and transportation infrastructure that link populations together, rather than secluding ourselves into the solidarity of social media bubbles. If we want to address the staggering racial and socioeconomic gap in educational outcomes, we’d run for school board and stop working for companies that evade taxes through loopholes. We’d work on expanding access to voting rights. We’d take positions that truly empower the communities around us.
Instead, the choices we’re making now play directly into a vicious cycle, where our paths forward allocate power away from the institutions necessary for the fabric of a healthy community, toward places that undemocratically centralize power through money. As we legitimize the increasing strength of private power in America, we are both directly and indirectly playing into systems of wealth inequality and breaking down tools than can solve the problems we care so deeply about.
We are, once again, in the midst of another recruiting season. It’s a time when consulting companies toss around terms like “social impact” because they have a global volunteer day, where big banks claim they achieve “win-win” outcomes by funding an inner-city reading program. Instead, I hope we think twice about what we are using our Yale education for. Maybe then, we’d pursue post-graduation paths that maximize returns — not just for us, via six-figure starting salaries, but for the communities around us too.
Liana Wang is a junior in Davenport College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .