American Sociological Association

Career Funneling: How Elite Students Learn to Define and Desire ''Prestigious" Jobs

Elite universities are credited as launch points for the widest variety of meaningful careers. Yet, year after year at the most selective universities, nearly half the graduating seniors head to a surprisingly narrow band of professional options. Over the past few decades, this has largely been into the finance and consulting sectors, but increasingly it also includes high-tech firms. This study uses a cultural-organizational lens to show how student cultures and campus structures steer large portions of anxious and uncertain students into high-wealth, high-status occupational sectors. Interviewing 56 students and recent alumni at Harvard and Stanford Universities, we found that the majority of our respondents experienced confusion about career paths when first arriving at college but quickly learned what were considered to be the most prestigious options. On-campus corporate recruitment for finance, consulting, and high-tech jobs functioned as a significant driver of student perceptions of status; career prestige systems built up among peers exacerbated the funneling effect into these jobs. From these processes, students learned to draw boundaries between ‘‘high-status’’ and ‘‘ordinary’’ jobs. Our findings demonstrate how status processes on college campuses are central in generating preferences for the uppermost positions in the occupational structure and that elite campus environments have a large, independent role in the production and reproduction of social inequality.


Binder, A. J., Davis, D. B., Bloom, N.





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