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.