Are the 'Best and Brightest' Going into Finance? Skill Development and Career Choice of MIT Graduates

by Pian Shu

Executive Summary — Pian Shu finds that MIT students who self-select into finance are less academically accomplished than those who choose science and technology.

Author Abstract

Using detailed data on recipients of bachelor's degrees from MIT between 2006 and 2012, I examine the selection of students going into finance or science and engineering (S&E). I find that academic achievement in college is negatively correlated with a propensity to take a job in finance and positively correlated with a propensity to pursue a graduate degree or taking a job in S&E. This pattern is primarily driven by differences in skill development during college, not by differences in academic qualifications at college entry. In both high school and college, the two groups participate in different activities: students who ultimately choose finance are substantially more likely to be varsity-sports leaders in high school; they are also more likely to join fraternities and sororities, a decision typically made at college entry. Sizable differences in academic performance begin in freshman year and persist throughout college. The 2008 financial crisis, which substantially reduced the availability of entry-level positions in finance, prompted some students with relatively low college-entry qualifications to major in S&E instead of management or economics and/or to improve their academic performance. But there is no evidence that those with top qualifications changed their skill development in response to the crisis. Taken together, the results demonstrate that the preferences and skills of graduates who pursue finance are not comparable to those of graduates who choose a career in S&E.

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