Columns

Andrea Matthews ’11: A Portrait of the Consultant as a Young Man

By
Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Allow me to tell you about my friend Rob.  Rob is an exemplary fellow: a recent graduate, he has found success in this time of economic tumult by securing a position with Bain and Company, one of the most successful management consulting firms in the country.  He has spent the past few months moving from the United States to Sydney, Australia to London, working at non-profit organizations on a Bain stipend. By most accounts, he is the model of a successful college graduate; after four years of hard work, he competed in a pool of well-groomed and highly educated individuals in a cutthroat labor market, and emerged victorious.

What Rob has achieved is a goal familiar to many of us, particularly given our attendance at an Ivy League university. One may protest Brown’s differences in character from peer institutions like Harvard, which reported sending 39 percent of its class of 2008 to positions in consulting firms and financial-sector companies.  

But consulting and investment-banking firms also represented the “top employers” at Brown until 2000, according to the Brown Alumni Magazine. Whether there is a difference in Brown’s character from those of peer institutions or not, students at universities like ours expect significant advantages in the recruitment process for these firms. Where better can one attain the personal development, intellectual growth and social capital necessary to be successful in a highly competitive labor market than at a prestigious university with a reputation for academic excellence?

Perhaps at one of the nation’s top 10 party schools. Rob didn’t attend Brown. He paid his own way through the University of Iowa (despite his acceptance to Northwestern, which he could not afford), joining student government and becoming president of a business fraternity. Rob financed his own education not because of family financial issues — his father is a CEO — but because his parents informed him as a child that he would be responsible for his own post-secondary education.

I met Rob when he moved into the building in which I was living this summer, and it was immediately apparent that we were nearly polar opposites in terms of our college experiences. I described my attempts at being “average” in Brown’s academic environment, and the constant challenges presented to me by my peers. He described the life-size cardboard cutout of him in Iowa’s admissions office. 

Rob’s theory with respect to his college experience was simple. Let’s assume that Rob and I are of equal intelligence. If he, with a state school on his resume, could achieve the same ends as I (possibly) could with Brown University and its $200,000 price tag, why would I ever choose a “prestigious” private education?

It’s a question I’ve been pondering since my return to campus. As freshmen took their first walk through the Van Wickle Gates (welcome!) I wondered what they hope to attain here.  Do some subscribe to Rob’s view that college attendance should be determined by which school is the most cost-effective gateway to a desired career? Do others seek personal enrichment through rigorous intellectual or extracurricular pursuits? Whatever the justification, what convinced us that Brown offered the most suitable education available?  How did we come to believe that $50,000 per year was an appropriate price to pay for it?

The answers to these questions will not be the same among Brown students. But if Rob’s experience is indicative of the opportunities available to intelligent and capable graduates from large state schools, simple incentives like high-powered careers should not be the only ones behind attaining a Brown education. 

That is not a suggestion that everyone abandon Brown for a less expensive alternative.  Firstly, a lucrative career is not the only or ultimate motivation for attaining an education. Secondly, the calculus of whether the utility gained from a Brown education is worth the tuition paid can only be done on an individual basis, as it is impossible for one to accurately gauge another person’s preferences.

Even then, there’s a bit of a wrinkle in the system. Can an 18-year-old, barely on the brink of adulthood, make an accurate and fully informed decision on how to best spend money that (in most cases) isn’t even theirs?  Perhaps a vestige of the hyper-competitive college admissions process is that those students and families who attain a favorable outcome in the face of incredible odds feel compelled to utilize their admission, regardless of their cost-benefit calculation.

But given that you are already here at Brown, reading this newspaper, what do you do?  Perhaps you can indulge in a little exercise: taking the prospect of a typically “successful” career (consulting, financial services) off the table, what motivates you to complete your Brown education?  If you already know the answer, I have the feeling you might be ahead of your peers.


Andrea Matthews ’11 could think of a few other things to do with $200,000.