Investment banks have a tendency to hire elites. Although banks like Goldman Sachs say they like to hire “smart and humble” people who often had a difficult start in life, research on both sides of the Atlantic suggests banks actually recruit upper middle class children who’ve attended upper middle class universities and engaged in upper middle class leisure activities. If you come from a low-income background you’ll probably have to be extra good to get in – especially if you want to work in the front office.
Low income students who do make it into finance, however, can thrive. Lloyd Blankfein aside, one such student is profiled in a new book on the experience of low-income students in the Ivy League by Kerry Landers at Dartmouth College. Landers spent over a decade following 20 low-income students from their final years at Dartmouth through to their 12th year at work. One, “Fritz,” who went on to work in private equity had his life transformed by the entire experience.
“I feel I’ve been extraordinarily blessed and wouldn’t have changed any decision along the way,” he told Landers when she caught up with him 12 years after he left Dartmouth. “I sometimes reflect on what kinds of things I used to be constrained by financially right up until I graduated Dartmouth … and really from day one, graduating from my first job coming out of Dartmouth, that’s become more of a distant past…”
Despite supporting his mother (“..it’s something that I kind of comfortably take care of, and it’s certainly been a motivating factor”), Fritz told Landers that he expected to be able to retire in three to five years’ time, before he’s 40. After concentrating fully on his career, he then plans to marry his girlfriend, raise a family and concentrate on improving his golf game. “I’ve achieved everything I could have possibly hoped to achieve from a financial perspective.”
For all the disparagement of finance careers, Fritz’s experience was a positive contrast to some of the other students Landers followed. One, Mohammad, decided to go travelling after graduation and ended up as a teaching assistant before taking a master’s in education and struggling to support his five children. Another, Courtney, was practicing law to pay off her loans but wanted to work outdoors. Another, Carol, wasted time and money applying to medical schools before getting rejected and then applying all over again. One who went into media and realized it wasn’t all that, “felt lost.”
Of course, not all Landers’ students who went into finance had as much success as Fritz – and Fritz himself left at one point to pursue a sports career before returning, “because he felt that he was missing out on the window of time to maximize his income”. One student, Brianna, went into an operations role in an investment firm and left after three years. Another, Michelle, got a job with a hedge fund that collapsed and ended up in sales with an investment bank, but felt her career, “took a long time to get started.”
Fritz, however, has no regrets and emerges as a sort of poster-boy for low-income students applying to top universities and then going into finance. “Do whatever it takes. I think it really, really matters,” he says to students from low-income families contemplating elite universities. “I value it tremendously. I would take out whatever loans you need to, work, [do] whatever you have to do on the side, but the return on the investment is almost infinite.”