Finance: Post-Crisis, Still a Hot Major

Finance is not dead yet. With a slew of jobs lost on Wall Street and bad publicity surrounding bankers, the finance major has lost a bit of its sparkle with undergraduate students. Still, there are people betting that crisis will birth opportunity and finance majors will again be in demand.

Banks around the world have cut 330,000 jobs during the latest financial crisis, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, and another 80,000 are expected to bite the dust in the next 18 months as revenue growth begins to slow, according to Meredith Whitney, a former Oppenheimer & Co. (OPY) analyst.

So it's no surprise that at some schools the number of students majoring in finance has dipped in recent years. For example, at Lehigh University's College of Business & Economics (Lehigh Undergraduate Business Profile), 47 percent of business students majored in finance this year, down from 49 percent in 2009.At New York University's Stern School of Business (Stern Undergraduate Business Profile), which is known for its ability to place graduates in Wall Street firms, the percentage of students majoring in finance dropped from 76 percent in 2008 to 75 percent in 2009 and 71 percent in 2010.

What is a surprise is the extent to which finance majors are shifting focus, trading their dreams of Wall Street jobs for nontraditional careers in risk management, emerging economies, and financial regulation. "Finance in general and investment banking specifically have always been cyclical," said Robert Whitelaw, chair of the finance department at Stern, in an interview. "We see many opportunities for finance majors, even in nontraditional fields."

Beyond Financial Advising

For finance majors, it's hard to get more nontraditional than Katie Sparkman, a 2010 graduate of Texas A&M University Mays Business School (Mays Undergraduate Business Profile), who started her own business and now has a contract to serve as a homeowner's association manager for Firethorne Community Assn. in Katy, Tex., just outside Houston. Instead of advising clients on their financial futures, as she had hoped, she's enforcing deed restrictions and reviewing financial statements to make sure the association is staying on budget.

When the economic downturn hit, Sparkman says, she was so deep into her major that she wasn't willing to turn back. Even though the skills she acquired proved to be transferable and she ultimately found a job she likes, her newly minted finance degree at first wasn't much help in the job market. "It was disheartening to find that the degree I worked so hard for and was so proud of was not seen as valuable by others," says Sparkman.

The dearth of traditional Wall Street jobs has forced finance students further afield, but it's also forced them to differentiate themselves to make themselves more marketable, says Anne Anderson, one of the finance chairs at Lehigh. "The types of jobs have not changed. The competition has changed," she says. "You must distinguish yourself more."

Students at Lehigh can get certified in the use of specific databases—Thomson Reuters (TRI) for investment banks and CQG for futures markets—to get an edge, says Anderson. The skills themselves are valuable to employers, but at the very least, she says, students with these certificates can speak more intelligently in their interviews.

Double Majors

When possible, students are pairing finance with another major, such as accounting or marketing, says Anderson. Ingrid Poole, a senior majoring in finance and accounting at the University of South Florida, said in an interview that she joined campus clubs to get leadership experience. John Cason, who graduated from Berry College in Georgia in 2009 with a double major in finance and marketing, suggests those who want finance jobs also get certified as chartered financial analysts, which qualifies them for jobs in the investment industry.

Crisis breeds opportunity, says Michael Silverman, a sophomore at Stanford who is a management science and engineering student in the financial decisions track. "Now might be the best time to get into finance because of the upheaval," he says. "There's opportunity in reform, and it should be more fun."

While the finance major may have lost some of its luster, it's certainly not on life support. Considering the magnitude of the crisis and the extent of the job cuts in banking, it remains fairly popular with students, said Mark Zupan, dean of the Simon Graduate School of Business at the University of Rochester, in an interview. The Simon school is planning to launch an undergraduate business program in January 2011, and Zupan said he expects finance to be the most popular major.

"As humans, we have a great, long-run track record of coming up with creative ways to generate wealth, notwithstanding the current crisis," said Zupan. "We'll always need people to manage that wealth."

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