Over the years, student consulting groups have slowly snuck their way into every major university of the world. We might as well start with our very own GRC: it is a non profit organization dedicated to providing consulting services to other organizations. It is present in Harvard, Yale, Columbia and many more top universities, counting more than 1000 active members.
What is fascinating is that GRC is not the only student organization that offers this kind of services pro bono. Their presence has risen dramatically over the years. There are many reasons why students might choose to participate in these associations, even though they are not gaining money. Some might consider it as an opportunity to socialize and establish a network that will prove to be useful in the future. Others consider it an opportunity to further their career options by gaining first-hand experience in the department (1). In this article we will mainly focus on the latter, also trying to decode how the rise of student consulting groups will affect the market.
In order to explain that phenomenon, we can start with the following hypothesis: most students that attend elite universities usually seek prestigious, high-paying jobs. It is therefore unsurprising that most of them end up working in finance or consulting. This can be proven by the fact that in 2017, nearly 40% of Harvard graduates found themselves a career in top firms that specialize in finance and consulting (2) . We can therefore conclude that the demand for experience in these fields is extremely high and that has led to the creation of numerous student consulting groups.
If we use the work of the famous sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to rationalize this behavior, we can deduce that students arrive in top universities with a preexisting habitus and by associating with people of similar social backgrounds, they encounter opportunities to reinforce this habitus further. That explains why the vast majority of graduates of elite universities work in very specific fields: finance, consulting and, most recently, technology. In fact, amongst recent graduates of Stanford, nearly a quarter work in technology and about 22% are split between consulting and finance, a number which in total represents almost half of the graduates (3).
Another issue that oughts to be addressed is the peer pressure many students in elite institutions feel when it comes to finding a prestigious internship (4). In elite universities, competitiveness reigns in their environment and, since everybody receives the same education, the only way to stand out is through one’s internships. That’s why most students fight tooth and nail in order to work for famous companies such as McKinsey&Co or J.P. Morgan. It is important to remember that such high-demanding internships require a lot of time and dedication, so it is best not to apply for these positions if one doesn't feel quite ready to do so.
Concerning the data bias in this article, one must keep in mind that a lot of the data originates from the student consulting groups themselves, so they can be quite biased in order to present an idealized image of this type of association. Some other sources include articles that have been published by universities, which are great sources because they have experienced the rise of student consulting companies firsthand but since they are neither consulting groups nor do they represent them, they are more objective. Overall, the data on the subject is limited, as is the variety of the sources, therefore this article cannot claim to provide a holistic point of view on the matter.
Concluding, it is amazing how consulting has risen to be one of the most popular themes for student associations. Its rise definitely demonstrates a shift in the job market as well as in the interests and expectations of students, especially those studying in elite universities.
1: The Economist. ‘What the rise of student consulting clubs means’. https://www.economist.com/united-states/2023/06/29/what-the-rise-of-student-consulting-clubs-means.
2: Sofian, Indra. ‘How Top-Performing College Grads Fall Into the 'Prestige Career' Trap’. Medium (blog), 27 January 2021. https://medium.com/s/story/a-culture-of-prestige-98c8671ceade.
3: Binder, Amy J., Daniel B. Davis, and Nick Bloom. ‘Career Funneling: How Elite Students Learn to Define and Desire '‘Prestigious’' Jobs’. Sociology of Education 89, vol. 1 (January 2016): 20–39. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038040715610883.
4: ‘GETTING A TOP MANAGEMENT CONSULTING JOB FROM USC: THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE’. University of South Carolina Honors College, May 2020. https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1375&context=senior_these