The location decisions of graduating college students has interested me for years. The reason is simple: College grads are making a joint decision about what job to take, what labor market to enter, and what city to live in, so they provide an interesting lens into how these choices get made. And, because they are both highly skilled and highly mobile – three to five times lore likely to move than, say, a 45-year-old – the locations they pick are likely to leave a lasting imprint on our economic geography.
For the past several years, the Harvard Crimson has surveyed the graduating class. I’m the first to admit it’s a highly biased sample, but it’s also a very interesting one – tracking graduates from arguably the world’s leading university. As such, it provides useful signals about the kinds of jobs and the kinds of places highly motivated, highly mobile young talent is picking.
The results of earlier surveys were predictable. Harvard grads traditionally headed to consulting and investment banking jobs in NYC. But this year’s findings – coming as they are in the midst of the economic and financial crisis – evidence some different and interesting trends.
Still Getting Jobs: While stories about the worsening job prospects for college grads are legion, the economic and financial crises have not significantly altered prospects for Harvard grads. The survey found that 59 percent of students had jobs lined up prior to graduation down slightly from 66 percent last year. This is understandable since Harvard grads are headed into professional, knowledge, and creative occupations which have the lowest rates of unemployment and since they signal top talent.
That said, career choices are certainly shifting along some predictable and some not-so-predictable lines.
Finance and Consulting Fade: Far fewer grads are headed to finance and consulting. The figure has been consistently down over the past three years, actually – falling from 47 percent in 2007 to 39 percent in 2008 to 20 percent this year. The numbers of grads headed into finance fell from 23 percent last year to 11.5 percent this year, while consulting dropped from 16 percent to 8.5 percent.
Education and Health Care Gain: More grads are headed to education and health care. Education is up from 10 to 15 percent of grads. Health care increased from six to 12 percent.
Government Down, Slightly: Despite the conventional view that government work might become more attractive, the share of grads taking jobs in government fell slightly this year 4.5 to three percent. The Crimson suggests this is “a paradoxical trend given the Democratic victories in the 2008 elections and the fact that 74 percent of Harvard seniors describe themselves as more liberal or considerably more liberal than the average American.”
I think it’s more predictable. Having taught public policy students for the better part of three decades, I’ve seen a long-running trend away from traditional government work which is perceived as overly hierarchical and bureaucratic. Public service and cause-oriented students I’ve come across prefer work in smaller scale, more flexible non-profits where they believe they can have more immediate impact. The Crimson reports that “programs like Teach for America… received applications from a record-setting 14 percent of Harvard seniors, according to data released by the organization.”
What They Really Want to Do: I found this question to be the most interesting in the survey. When grads were asked “what career they would choose if finances were not a concern,” the number one field was the arts, with 16 percent choosing it as their “dream field,” followed by public service (12.5 percent) and education (12 percent). Finance and consulting dropped to five percent each.
Top Cities: Check out the great map below. The greater Boston area is the top destination – reinforcing the point that having an elite university (or more) in your local backyard can be a considerable talent advantage. And since after-college moves are the pinnacle of mobility it can be a lasting one. Cities might do better by focusing a little bit less on luring “ex-pats” back home, and a little more on retaining the college grads that have already chosen them. New York has fallen from its previous top spot. D.C. is down just a tad – even with the new heavily Harvard Obama administration and the southern shift in the nation’s financial and economic nerve center. Small percentages are headed to the South or the Midwest, with Chicago drawing just 1.3 percent of grads. Seventeen percent of grads are going abroad – which may be taken as a signal of a shrinking U.S. and improving foreign opportunities but which I view as a very positive sign for the future.