On February 15, 2017, Cornell Cinema presented the film Collegetown. Written and directed by Cornell alumni Hugo Genes ’10, Collegetown is a work of creative non-fiction, blending documentary and scripted story to depict college students who—influenced in part by student loan debt—pursue high-paying Wall Street jobs upon graduating, only to experience the harsh realities of life at the lower levels of the investment banking world. Using parallels between the college admissions process and fraternity and sorority rush with the recruiting of students by investment banks, the film considers how students compete for finance jobs seemingly without questioning what role these institutions play in society, what the work entails, or whether it will be fulfilling.
By looking at the lives of those at the bottom rung of the investment banking ladder, Collegetown provides a stark contrast to the portrayal of Wall Street in television shows such as Billions and Suits and films such as Wall Street. These pop culture depictions may question the morality of some of the players, but ultimately glamorize the extravagant lifestyle of the super-rich and powerful. This may be eye opening to those students who accept without question that working for an investment bank is the ultimate achievement for a college graduate.
Genes said about the film, “I set out to map how did I go from being a 17-year-old kid who didn’t even know what an investment bank was to wanting to dedicate most of my college experience to getting a job on Wall Street…The target audience are young people today…16, 17, 18-year-olds who are watching this are able to learn about the financial positions they’re going to face in college.”
Based on the reactions of Cornell students and staff viewing the film, it appears that Genes has hit his mark. A number of viewers focused on the connection between the accumulation of student loan debt and the allure of a high paying Wall Street job. Ryan Follensbee ’18, remarked, “I think the film had a well-constructed narrative suggesting a predatory nature of our nation’s financial institutions. I feel what was more engaging were the astute observations of risk/reward felt by students when facing college debt, and even in the face of the gravity of the situation, the lack of emphasis the average student puts on actually receiving and retaining an education.” Similarly, Cornell Abroad faculty member Julia Franke commented, “The situation in the Financial Aid office also gave a good insight into student’s problems. I also liked the way how the Financial Industry was presented–over present on campus, always visible, and drawing students in even if they weren’t considering it at first.”
Other students who attended the screening were struck by the hardships of post-college life. Matthew Engel ’17, remarked, “Collegetown casts light on the social forces underpinning the ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality of Cornell students: Ever-lingering just beyond the cushy bubble of college life lies, well, the ‘Real World,’ with no guarantee of personal success therein. I walked out of the film feeling a weight I hadn’t fully realized I was carrying all along.” Asked how the film impacted his perspective, Victor Oliveira Reis ’18, responded, “I really enjoyed the film; to me it is in essence about how people end up doing things they are not passionate about due to financial reasons and peer pressure.”
As much as Collegetown exposes the truths about life at the lower levels of the investment banking world, the appeal of working on Wall Street is as inevitable and strong as ever. Even after seeing the film, Reis commented, “Amusingly, I am still strongly considering working on Wall Street after graduation, but by no means in a huge corporation.” Although the draw of the lucrative investment banking world continues, particularly to those with sizeable student loan debt, Collegetown achieves Genes’ goal: it gives students insight into both the influence of Wall Street on campus and the world that awaits them if they decide to work there.