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At Top Colleges, Anti-Wall St. Fervor Complicates Recruiting

University of California, Berkeley students protest on campus as part of Occupy Wall Street movement.
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University of California, Berkeley students protest on campus as part of Occupy Wall Street movement.

College students seeking jobs on Wall Street have always had hurdles to overcome — grueling applications, endless rounds of interviews, and fierce competition for the relatively few available spots at top firms.

This year’s Wall Street hopefuls have had a new force to contend with: The wrath of their peers.

Banks and hedge funds have long wooed undergraduates from elite colleges with lavish dinners, personalized e-mails, and free trips to New York for interviews. It’s all part of an annual courtship ritual known as on-campus recruiting.

But this fall, the antibank animus of the Occupy Wall Streetmovement has seeped onto college campuses. At some schools, anger at big banks has turned the on-campus recruiting process into a crucible of controversy.

“I teach financial markets, and it’s a little like teaching R.O.T.C. during the Vietnam War,” said Robert J. Shiller, a professor of economics at Yale University. “You have this sense that something’s amiss.”

Even at universities traditionally considered to be Wall Street feeder schools, student bodies are becoming polarized over recruiting. At Harvard, Dartmouth and Cornell, student newspapers have featured polemic columns that urged fellow students to consider working somewhere — anywhere — outside finance.

At Stanford, an opinion column that took aim at Wall Street’s “aggressive, sophisticated and well-funded recruitment system” resulted in “Stop the Brain Drain,” an online campaign that is trying to stem the tide of top students flooding into banks, hedge funds, and private equity firms.

“We think it’s really problematic,” said Nathan Gusdorf, 22, a senior at Dartmouth College who is an organizer of the Occupy Dartmouth movement. “There’s a culture here that takes a lot of people and directs them towards jobs in the finance industry. We breed a lot of the technocrats who go on to administer the global financial system.”

Wall Street has been steadily losing its allure on college campuses since the financial crisis, when many banks reduced hiring and left many finance-minded graduates in the lurch. Amid new uncertainty and lower profits, banks are again laying off workers, and most of those still working in the industry have seen their paychecks shrink.

Goldman Sachs , which was hard hit by this year’s downturn, canceled its fall information session for undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania, traditionally one of its core recruiting schools. (The firm is still planning to hold a session for summer intern recruits in January.) At Harvard, only 17 percent of last year’s class planned to go into financial services after graduation, according to a survey of graduating seniors, compared with 25 percent in 2006, before the crisis.

But with the added vitriol of Occupy Wall Street, this year’s recruiting process is even more forbidding.

The New Recruiting Climate

The new recruiting climate was on display at Yale in mid-November, when a group of Yale students turned a Morgan Stanley information session into a protest site. While their fellow students, clad in suits and clutching folders with résumés, filed into The Study at Yale, a local hotel, to learn more about the investment bank, a group of approximately 25 Yale undergraduates protested outside. They held signs and chanted slogans like “Take a stance, don’t go into finance” and “25 percent is too much talent spent” — a nod, protest organizers said, to the quarter of Yale graduates who typically take finance and management consulting jobs after graduation.

Mark Lake, a Morgan Stanley spokesman, said in a statement: “Morgan Stanley respects and supports everyone’s right to protest and express their opinions. The event was well attended and we plan to continue to provide opportunities for discussions like this with any interested students.”

Yale, which has graduated financial heavyweights such as Stephen A. Schwarzman, the co-founder of the Blackstone Group, is traditionally considered a Wall Street feeder school. But the Occupy New Haven movement wants to change the focus.

Alexandra Brodsky, a Yale senior who helped organize Tuesday’s protest, said in an interview that recruiting “serves to divide the campus.”

Ms. Brodsky added that she had recently begun openly questioning the career choices of her finance-minded friends, because “these are people who could be doing better things with their energy.”

Kate Orazem, a senior in the student group, added that Yale students often go into finance expecting to leave after several years, but end up staying for their entire careers.

“People are naïve about how addictive the money is going to be,” she said.

Even without protests and antagonism, Wall Street firms would very likely have drawn a smaller percentage of the Ivy League’s class of 2012 than top-flight firms in other industries.

According to a recent survey conducted by Universum, a consulting firm, the most coveted positions among young workers these days are jobs at technology firms like Google , Apple and Facebook. The highest rated investment bank in the survey, JPMorgan Chase , was ranked 41st, with only 2 percent of respondents listing the firm as their first choice of employer.

But for those students still hoping to land a job in finance, the added peer pressure has forced some of their enthusiasm underground.

“I can feel when my students tell me they’re going into I-banking, they’re a little more reserved about it than they used to be,” said Chris Wiggins, an associate professor in Columbia University’s department of applied physics and applied mathematics.

Mr. Wiggins, who is also an organizer of HackNY, a technology-focused group that tries to steer engineers and programmers away from Wall Street, said that the well-oiled recruitment process would be difficult to stop.

“Zero percent of people show up at the Ivy League saying they want to be an I-banker, but 25 and 30 percent leave thinking that it’s their calling,” he said. “The banks have really perfected, over the last three decades, these large recruitment machines.”

Several days before the Morgan Stanley recruiting session at Yale that was greeted by protests, a recruiting session for Goldman Sachs confirmed that those machines, however battered, are still in operation. At the event, more than 100 students filed into a ballroom at the Omni Hotel, where they mingled with Goldman recruiters.

Nicholas Lombardo, a junior at Yale who attended, said that although he hoped to land a job on Wall Street upon graduation, he did not necessarily plan to spend his entire career in banking. He said that he had some concerns about the financial industry, but that the prospect of learning basic financial skills in a challenging, fast-paced environment had won out.

“My friends and I joke about, ‘Oh, are you going to the dark side?’ ” Mr. Lombardo said. “But it still seems like the smart thing to do.”

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