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Meanwhile, the crisis is starting to affect "Money and Power" on the other side of the lectern. Wright says he's seen fewer students making it to his three-hour, three-credit MBA elective course in recent weeks. Others are obviously burning the candle at both ends. One student who works for Goldman Sachs, he reports, has been called into the office to work late hours and weekends. While she still makes it to campus on Saturday, during one recent class she used the break in the middle of class to take a nap. For the most part, though, Wright says the biggest reaction to the current crisis from his students has been, "You know, 'I'm sorry, professor, but I can't turn in my homework because I work on a trading desk in an investment bank trading mortgage-backed securities and I just don't have the time.' Or 'I'm sorry I missed class, but I was called into an emergency meeting.'"
Many students, says Seth Berkowitz, who's enrolled in both Wright and Roubini's courses, feel down because they've already racked up so much debt. "There's a lot of concern that you put so much money into school and you're not going to come out with the job you want—or any job," he says.
Berkowitz already has a job, working 15 hours a week at a private equity fund, also known as an opportunity fund or "vulture" fund. His company, he explains, buys up bad loans at "garage sale" prices and either works to restructure them or waits until after the foreclosure process to scoop up property it can redevelop and/or resell. (The company doesn't buy home loans, Berkowitz quickly adds, because they don't want to be in the business of throwing people out of their homes. Commercial real estate, though, is fair game.)
Berkowitz, who's in an NYU program to earn both a law degree and an MBA, understands why many feel now is not a great time to be looking for a job. It wasn't that great last year either, he recalls, but at least then students felt they could still end up with the summer internship or job of their choice, as he ultimately did. "But when we came back in October and especially when Lehman [Bros.] went down, that was when people got scared."
At a recent career fair at NYU, he says, attendance was way up from last year. But there are fewer jobs to be had, and even if one's offered a job, one is never sure how long the firm may be around. "There's a feeling that to get a job this year, you're going to have to pull off a miracle," Berkowitz says. Another student sitting in on Wright's class, who asked not to be identified, feels recruiters are only making token visits to campus this year. "There are not going to be any jobs," he asserts. "Recruiters are coming, but coming more to save face." But, according to Stern, 59 companies attended an MBA career fair earlier this month—31 percent more than last year and a record draw. A school spokeswoman says Stern continues to "receive a consistent flow of opportunities through job postings similar to past years."
And the job market might not be the only thing getting more competitive. It may get harder for people looking to break into the business world to weather the storm at business school. According to Andrew Yang, CEO of test-prep firm ManhattanGMAT, business is up 50 percent this year over last year. "Everything is coming up roses for us," he says.
Started in 2000 by educational iconoclast Zeke Vanderhoek (best known for the charter school he's starting in Washington Heights that will offer teachers six-figure salaries), ManhattanGMAT pays $100 an hour to attract top-level instructors—each of whom must have scored in the 99th percentile on their own Graduate Management Admission Test.
Yang says that not only has he not seen a drop-off in the number of employees taking their courses, but he's seen a surge in people looking to equip themselves with an MBA to do battle in what Yang called an "educational arms race." Potential business students are willing to spend the money—or take on the debt—to earn a degree now so that hopefully, once the market picks back up, they'll be in a stronger position to rise above the competition and land a good job.
"The real question is how the economy looks in summer 2011," says Yang, referring to those applying now to start two-year programs in fall 2009. "And so the bet is that in the next three years the economic picture will brighten considerably. So over that time, you'll be able to network successfully." (Roubini, the man who saw all this coming, does predict that things will start to right themselves after two years.)
Until then, students are left to weigh how to make the most out of an uncertain future. The anonymous student in Wright's class is speculating on when it would be best to pounce on the depressed market. Berkowitz figures a law degree would offer a level of job stability until he could cross over full-time to the business side. Because, after all, in the long run, the market always trends upward.
Then again, Wright recalls, there's the oft-repeated quote from famed economist John Maynard Keynes:
"In the long run, we're all dead."