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What to make of Teach for America's recruitment success?

Putting aside whether Teach for America generates impressive teachers, it's surely the service program best at generating impressive applicants. And that's not because of pay, or the opportunities that two years in an urban kindergarten will secure you.

Rather, it's because of two things: Recruitment and status. The first tracks the interview I did with a former Goldman Sachs employee. She noted that Teach for America and the major banks had very similar recruitment programs: They started early, recruited aggressively, indulged the college senior's confusion by asking for a mere two-year commitment, and gave them bragging rights.

That last bit is important: Teach for America, as this article makes clear, is ferociously selective. They're more like an Ivy League graduate program than a volunteer organization. And that's a feature, not a bug. The difficulty of getting accepted makes acceptance an accomplishment. It's a job you can brag about, and it's managed to achieve that status without offering much in the way of money. Whatever else Teach for America is -- or is not -- it's a good reminder that money isn't everything, the only thing, or even the most important thing. Status matters to, and maybe even more.

This is, I think, one of the big, unanswered questions of the financial crisis: How effective was it at reducing the status of Wall Street? Anecdotally, I hear about rising seniors having to justify their decision to head to a major bank, or even hide it from their peers. The money is still attractive, but it comes loaded with shame. The pessimistic take, however, is that rising seniors don't have many other places to go: The recession means good graduate programs are stuffed, actual jobs are harder to come by, and there aren't many Teach for Americas out there. And with Wall Street hiring before the rest of the economy, it might regain its hiring dominance even as it has lost its old shine.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 13, 2010; 5:01 PM ET
 
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Comments

You're right Ezra, as the 'Demotivational' poster explained: DEFEAT - For every winner there are dozens of losers. Odds are, you're one of them.

If you can't entice someone with the lure of money, then the ego is the only appeal left when we need someone to work selflessly with children.

Posted by: Jaycal | July 13, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

Something that's designed to be similar, but I don't think quite pulls it off, is the Presidential Management Fellows. The GS-9 grade that most are hired at isn't exactly the big bucks coming out of top graduate programs but there are some bragging rights involved and a slightly easier path through the Federal Gov's HR system.

Posted by: tgates573 | July 13, 2010 5:32 PM | Report abuse

The fact that Wall Street continued to pay huge bonuses during and after the calamity, and now that the surviving too-big-to-fail firms are now even bigger -- these facts will only make a Wall Street career even more attractive to those students for whom large sums of money are the main attraction.

Whatever "status" a Wall Street profession might impart has to do with one thing only: the status of extraordinarily high compensation.

Posted by: Patrick_M | July 13, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse

"Anecdotally, I hear about rising seniors having to justify their decision to head to a major bank, or even hide it from their peers. The money is still attractive, but it comes loaded with shame."

As another rising senior at an Ivy, my anecdotal evidence says almost the exact opposite. In talking with people in my year and the recently graduated, I don't think I have heard one person have to justify their decision to work on Wall St, much less hide it. It is still by far the most coveted destination.

I can perhaps see this sort of thing happening behind someone's back, where one person makes a derogatory comment to a friend about another person who has taken a banking job, but definitely not to their face.

But I think you are exactly right about TFA essentially being an Ivy League graduate program, and the point that it has become coveted in part due to the "status" points it endows someone.

Posted by: Claremont | July 13, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

I'm not knocking TFA, because I think it's a great program that has been successful in making teaching a more attractive profession for smart, talented people, but I think you're being too generous in concluding that service and an ego boost are the only motivators.

TFA is a famously beneficial thing to have on your resume when applying to law school or an MBA program, and unfortunately, a lot of people go into it for just that reason. They put in their two years teaching history in the Bronx, then use that (and a presumably impressive transcript) to get into Harvard or Yale Law. In another three years, they're working for a white-shoe firm in Manhattan, and that noble teaching gig is just a rosy anecdote from their salad days.

Again, I think it's a very well-conceived program program, but don't assume everyone is in it for the right reasons.

Posted by: jwellington1 | July 13, 2010 7:00 PM | Report abuse

While I certainly agree with the prestige aspect, I also believe there is the allure of having immediate 'work product.' Entry level jobs tend not to be the exciting positions where people can judge their own success by external standards. If your boss says you did a great job on that TPS report, who are you to disagree? If your third graders learned their multiplication tables, you can reasonably assume you did your job well.

I work for a volunteer non-profit, and we offer the chance to help out at summer school, build a community garden and paint murals in graffiti-ridden areas. We even ask for a donation to join us, yet the opportunity to see your 5 hours/day turn into something tangible brings 200 people a day during the summer.

Posted by: robertgspence | July 13, 2010 8:45 PM | Report abuse

From someone who chose TFA over some other pretty serious options, I agree with robertgspence that the prospect of doing meaningful work was very enticing. So, too, were the financial incentives, as opposed to those of Peace Corps and other Americorps programs. If you want to do hands on service right out of school, would you choose a program where you hover above the poverty line, or one where you receive a full salary and health insurance? And, with the growing status, it absolutely is a big boost to a resume.

Posted by: girlscoutsamerica | July 14, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

From someone who chose TFA over some other pretty serious options, I agree with robertgspence that the prospect of doing meaningful work was very enticing. So, too, were the financial incentives, as opposed to those of Peace Corps and other Americorps programs. If you want to do hands on service right out of school, would you choose a program where you hover above the poverty line, or one where you receive a full salary and health insurance? And, with the growing status, it absolutely is a big boost to a resume.

Posted by: girlscoutsamerica | July 14, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

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