Despite their broad interests, nearly half of Stanford and Harvard grads choose just three careers. Photo via

Elite college students have widely varying interests and aspirations, right? So, how do you explain nearly half of Harvard and Stanford’s 2014 graduates choosing to pursue jobs in only three economic sectors: financial services, management consulting, and technology? To answer this question and better understand how upper-tier universities form a pipeline to such a narrow range of prestigious careers, Amy Binder, Daniel Davis, and Nicholas Bloom conducted in-depth interviews with 56 Harvard and Stanford students and recent alumni.

The researchers asked current and former students how they decided on their ultimate career paths. They found that the majority of students experienced anxiety and confusion when beginning college, but quickly understood which options were considered the most prestigious. Largely as a result of on-campus corporate recruitment, students saw finance, consulting, and high-tech jobs as high-status. These perceptions of prestige also led students to distinguish between “high-status” and “ordinary” jobs,  encouraging many to choose high-wealth, high-status occupational sectors.

Binder and her colleagues explain that while the key destinations for “the best and the brightest” have changed, the general processes funneling students toward a small number of occupational sectors are not new. Student career aspirations are driven not only by individual preferences, but by organizations and the people in them. Universities influence students’ occupational trajectories by fostering peer prestige systems based on the meanings students assign to particular jobs. By illuminating how this process works, the researchers help us understand how elite universities may “curtail students’ creativity, leech talent away from other sectors, and contribute to economic and social inequality.” 

You can find the full article here:

Amy J. Binder, Daniel B. Davis, & Nicholas Bloom. (2015). Career Funneling: How Elite Students Learn to Define and Desire ‘‘Prestigious’’Jobs. Sociology of Education, 0038040715610883.