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Deferring Six Figures on Wall Street for Teacher's Salary

Andy Ryan | Taxi | Getty Images

Four years after the financial crisis, Wall Street hiring has remained weak, and many college graduates have searched for jobs and even careers in other fields.

In the last several years, hundreds of such would-be finance professionals and management consultants have taken their high-powered ambitions and spreadsheet modeling skills to the classroom.

Teach for America, the 22-year-old nonprofit organization that recruits high-achieving college graduates to teach in some of the nation's poorest schools for two years, in particular has garnered renewed interest among the business-oriented set.

Teach for America says that its 2012 class contained about 400 recent graduates with a major in business or economics. Of those with professional experience, about 175 worked in finance.

Those participants include Zachary Dearing, 23, a recent graduate of M.I.T. Two summers ago, he was an intern at McKinsey & Company, and the year before, Goldman Sachs.

Yet, he was one of 21 teachers in this year's class who had deferred job offers from a Wall Street bank, a management consulting firm or another corporate partner to join Teach for America.

"If somebody had told me I was going to be a high school math teacher in Dallas, Texas, when I entered college, I'd be like, 'No, there's no chance of that being true,' " said Mr. Dearing, who has deferred an offer from McKinsey. The teaching skills easily translate to office environments, he said. "I'm effectively the leader, every day, for 46 minutes, in front of seven different groups," Mr. Dearing said.

Teach for America also became a sought-after option for students like Eric Rodriguez, who was a senior at Harvard when the financial crisis hit. Mr. Rodriguez had completed two internships at Lehman Brothers and was fully expecting to work at the firm after he graduated. But as he started his senior year in September 2008, Lehman Brothers collapsed and Wall Street was in a free fall.

But that fall, Teach for America began its to woo him to join its ranks.

"At Harvard, they harass you: 'I'm going to be at this place, come meet me,' " he said. "It wasn't until I was desperate that I said 'I'll check this out and speak to this person.' " In 2009, Mr. Rodriguez joined Teach for America and taught in an elementary school in San Francisco for two years. Afterward, he landed a job at Facebook in its user operations department.

At least a dozen other teaching programs also compete to attract talented college graduates and professionals. NYC Teaching Fellows, a 12-year-old program that is run by the city's education department, said that nearly 7 percent of its applicants in 2012 were business majors. It is similarly selective and had nearly 12,000 applicants last year for about 1,400 spots, mostly for positions in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Other publicly and privately run teaching enterprises, like Chicago Teaching Fellows and City Year, a one-year service program, attract applicants from across the country. But among most graduates, Teach for America holds a higher profile, said Monica Wilson, acting co-director of Dartmouth College's office of career services.

"As Teach for America has been around longer and hired very smart people, it's gotten even better at how they recruit students, while the financial services industry has slowed down and experienced negative publicity in the media," Ms. Wilson said. Many regard earning a spot in Teach for America a "badge of success."

Teach for America in particular said that its applicant pool had swelled during the recession and lackluster recovery. More than 48,000 applied for 5,800 spots in 2012, nearly twice as many as those who had sought positions for the 2008 class.

The relationship between the teachers in the program and those outside the program has often been tense. Critics of the Teach for America program say teachers, in general, aren't at their best until they've been working for at least five years.

Teach for America contends that many of its teachers last beyond the required two years. Of its 28,000 alumni, two-thirds remain in education roles, including as principals and superintendents (about half of those educators are in classroom settings).

"It wouldn't have the same appeal if it were for a longer period of time," said Kaitlin Gastrock, a spokeswoman for Teach for America. "Two years is a reasonable ask to make of folks who are just finishing up their college experience."

Teach for America participants receive the same starting salary as first-year teachers in their districts, which is about $25,500 to $51,000 a year. That pales in comparisons to the six-figure salary and bonus structures that many elite college graduates can expect in finance.

The program fully expects that it will not keep all of its recruits. Mr. Dearing, for one, said he intended to work at McKinsey after his commitment was over. But the teaching program could lead to a career in public service one day, he said.

In many ways Teach for America was modeled on the success of top Wall Street firms, which seek to recruit the best and the brightest college graduates. In her 2001 memoir, the program's founder, Wendy Kopp, wrote that she hoped to both improve the stature of the profession and give the recruitment process a much-needed jolt. In the book, she said she envisioned creating "a teachers corps that would recruit as aggressively as the investment banks and management consulting firms that were still swarming all over campus."

Indeed, some of Teach for America's outreach is taken straight from Wall Street's recruiting book. On campuses, career advisers and applicants say, the program's presence is large, with ambassadors compiling lists of impressive candidates from the recommendations of professors, academic advisers and alumni. Now, the number of teachers who joined this year from Ivy League schools is nearly 50 percent higher than it was in 2008.

"They take the time to visit campus, to get to know our students, our student groups, where and when they should present," said Patricia Rose, director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania. "Most of the other people who use this model are for-profit organizations."

The previous internships in finance have proved to be effective teaching aids for some of the participants. Ross Peyser, a 2011 graduate of Cornell and a second-year teacher in New Orleans, was once an intern at Oliver Wyman, a financial services consulting firm. As a teacher, he still plays the role of data analyst, creating Excel spreadsheets to diagnose his students' learning needs.

At the end of day, he administers a five-question quiz to students to assess who understood the lesson. When class is over, he performs exhaustive data pulls in Excel, just as he did as a finance intern.

"I had a stronger basis to do my data analysis compared to all the other teachers in my school," Mr. Peyser said. "It came more naturally just based on that one summer in finance."

And more important, he and others do regard the program as one that provides essential job skills.

"T.F.A. is a really strong name," he said. "It seems as if going to work for McKinsey or something like that; they hold the same value."

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