10 years after the Great Recession, alumni reflect

By ROLLIN HU | October 18, 2018

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COURTESY OF ROLLIN HU

In May 2009, newly-hired University President Ronald J. Daniels delivered a commencement address to the graduating class on Homewood Field.

“Believe it or not, this is an exciting time,” he said. “Crisis provides the opportunity to think anew and the obligation to act anew.”

While Daniels was referring to a financial crisis which threatened Hopkins in 1888, he was also alluding to the economic recession that cast doubt on the futures of the graduates.

The Class of 2009 graduated into an economy at its worst state since the Great Depression. People generally became aware of the Great Recession when, in the autumn of 2008, seemingly stable financial institutions like Fannie Mae, Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual collapsed. 

A domino effect shook investments across the country, including the University’s endowment, and graduates faced a declining job market. In September 2008, the economy lost 452,000 jobs, making it the worst month for jobs in 33 years.

Since then, the Class of 2009 has had a decade to move beyond the crisis and pursue their careers. Despite the fears and uncertainties of the time, the University and its 2009 graduates adapted to the limiting circumstances. 

Anxieties about the future

Paulo Farqui, Class of 2009, studied Public Health and was interested in pursuing a career in pharmaceuticals. The summer before his senior year, he worked as an intern for Pfizer. These types of internships had typically led to job offers after graduation.

“I had a great internship at Pfizer, and I thought that all was going great,” he said. “I was going to get a job offer and move to New York — start my life and start my career in the fall of 2009 at a Fortune 500 company.”

Farqui interned with around 20 individuals that summer but none of them received a job offer.  

Others faced similar situations. One of his friends had interned for an investment bank that summer, but by graduation that bank ceased to exist.

Farqui recalled attending the commencement celebrations and learning that only about 20 percent of the class had a full-time job offer after graduation. He recognized that the figure may have been so low because many were going to medical school and other graduate programs but said that the statistic still dampened the mood.

“It was a really startling figure to hear,” he said. “It wasn’t the happiest of occasions because we were battling the aftermath of the financial crisis.”

Tasmim Anwar graduated the same year and described the anxious atmosphere during graduation.

“I wouldn’t say it was a pit of despair,” she said. “There was a little feeling, which I think every class feels, which is ‘I get this degree, I paid all this money and spent all this time, and what is the result?’”

Andrew Solinger, also Class of 2009, found work as a paralegal through a job fair during the school year. However, he believes he was lucky to get this position.

“I have a friend who was also looking to be a paralegal, and he had applied to some other firms at the same fair and a bunch of them just canceled,” he said. “You sort of heard, word of mouth, of people having trouble finding jobs.”

Economics Professor Robert Barbera graduated from Hopkins in 1974, during the then-worst recession in U.S. history since the Great Depression. In the fall of 2008, he was the chief economist at a Wall Street firm and taught a weekly class at Hopkins. He described the tension he felt having a firsthand perspective of the financial crisis.

“As an employee at a Wall Street firm and as a citizen of the world, this was all horrific. As a student of finance with a particular axe to grind, this is a validation of a story some of us had been telling for years,” he said. “But when the house is burning, it’s not the time to stand up to say ‘I told you so.’”

According to Barbera, during a recession, employers aim to reduce their payroll. Given the costs of firing, employers instead choose not to hire which makes it especially difficult for college graduates to find a job. In situations like these, Barbera argued that it was advantageous for students to apply for graduate programs — which is what he, Anwar, Farqui and many Class of 2009 graduates did.

The decision to go to graduate school

Paulo Farqui intended to pursue a career at Pfizer but changed his mind because of the recession and Barack Obama’s presidential win. With a nationwide conversation about healthcare reform, he sought a graduate education at the Bloomberg School of Public Health to learn more about health policy.

After completing his master’s degree, Booz Allen Hamilton hired Farqui as a senior consultant in 2011. However, he still felt some lingering effects of the recession. 

“When I first started at Booz Allen Hamilton, I was being paid the same as some of my friends who were graduating in the Class of 2011, despite the fact that I had a master’s degree,” Farqui said. “Though this may have been poor negotiating strategies or the fact that I was in healthcare, which is not the most lucrative industry.”

Economic studies have found that students who graduate into a recession face a long-term wage gap compared to students who graduate into a robust economy because starting salaries set a baseline for lifetime wages. The negative effects are only amplified for women and people of color. 

Today, Farqui is happy with his position as a senior manager at a consulting firm. He feels that his salary has caught up over the past seven years.

Tasmim Anwar also said that graduate school proved to be an overwhelmingly popular option for students. Among a group of 20 friends, she estimated that less than three went directly into industry and the rest pursued more education — though some were originally pre-med or pre-law.

Anwar, however, emphasized that there were still major long-term disadvantages for the Class of 2009 compared to other graduating classes.

“There was a couple of people in my classes who graduated early, [they ended up] feeling so lucky,” she said. “Between 2008 and 2009, there was a huge difference in finding work, the pay you got.”

Nicole Errett also graduated in the Class of 2009. However, unlike Farqui, Solinger and Anwar, she knew before the recession hit that she wanted to pursue a master’s degree at the School of Public Health. For the second year of the program, she had to find a job in the field as a part of a practicum. Despite the worst of the recession being over, she recalled that it was still difficult to find a job placement in 2010.

“There was a lot of anxiety among my classmates about being able to find a position because there were a lot more people at graduate school,” she said. “There were more people who were overqualified for these jobs.”

Despite challenges after obtaining a master’s degree, Solinger, Anwar, Errett and Farqui felt that their Hopkins education made it easier for them to get into graduate programs.

Solinger, who went to law school after working as a paralegal for two years, recognized that many Hopkins students had privileges which made graduate school more accessible to them.

“Hopkins students typically come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, so the added debt of going on to grad school doesn’t make it cost-prohibitive,” Solinger said. “That was a route that was open to a lot more for students [at Hopkins] than a lot of other schools.”

He also said that the atmosphere at Hopkins pressured students to have a more persistent attitude in pursuing opportunities.

“This is not a school to go where you need someone to hold your hand,” he said. “That’s something that really helped with teaching me, and all the other graduates around that time, that if you go out there and you want something, you got to apply for it.”

With resources like the Career Center and advisors, Solinger, Farqui and Errett all emphasized that the Hopkins name helped them in graduate admissions and job applications.

“Because of what Hopkins did and because of its reputation, it made it a lot easier for us to weather that storm,” Farqui said. “It worked in our favor that we had a strong institution in our arsenal.”

Errett, who is now a professor at the University of Washington, cautions her undergraduate students against applying directly to master’s programs and suggests that spending several years working could help graduates develop specialized interests.

“Maybe we would be better off if we did have some work experience beforehand,” she said. “If this recession had pushed more people directly into graduate school, maybe they didn’t have the opportunity to derive the maximum out of their degree because they didn’t know exactly what they wanted to do afterwards.”

Effects on the University

On Feb. 13, 2009, then-University President William Brody wrote, in a letter to the Hopkins community, that, “we cannot pretend that the economic storm has bypassed the University.” In the face of public funding cuts for higher education, faltering investment returns and uncertain donations, the University projected that there was going to be a more than $100 million revenue shortage for fiscal years 2010 and 2011.

Tasmim Anwar worked in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences’ Development and Alumni Relations Office during her senior year. She saw firsthand how the University handled the financial strain.

“It was very eye-opening being a student worker,” Anwar said. “There were so many endowments that were beyond not just producing any money — they were literally having to eat into themselves to sustain themselves which was very detrimental for the University.”

Prior to the 2008 crash, the University’s endowment was $2.3 billion. After the crisis, it dropped to $2.1 billion, and University investments lost around 20 percent of their market value. Despite these losses, Hopkins was in a unique position to weather the crisis compared to peer institutions with bigger endowments. For example, Harvard’s endowment fell more substantially from $36.9 billion to $26 billion.

“Because we are not as dependent on our endowment, we were able to sustain a lot of what other universities were going through in terms of not cashing out our endowments or laying off employees,” Anwar said.

To offset losses, she described how Alumni Relations tried reconnecting with donors.

“We did go to some of these donors saying, ‘Hey, your endowment is underwater... will you be willing to give a gift outright for just this year to cover what the cost would have been?’ Some were able to do that, but obviously everyone was hurting,” she said. “2009 was definitely one of the lower years of the total number of dollars raised, but it wasn’t nonexistent.”

Unlike other schools, Hopkins only implemented hiring freezes for both faculty and staff and restricted non-contracted salary raises.

Anwar, who continued working at Hopkins and is now an associate director of development for the Whiting School of Engineering, is proud of how the University handled its finances during such an uncertain time.

“They had hiring freezes instead of layoffs, raises were being held, things like that” she said. “Though it was painful for those who had to go through it, it was respectable.”

Graduating in today’s economy

Many aspects of the economy have recovered since 2008. Economic indicators, like interest rates and stock prices, show a robust economy today. The October 2018 unemployment rate hit a historic low at 3.7 percent, which is a stark difference from October 2009 when the highest rate of the recession was 10 percent. 

However, over the past 50 years there has been a recession every five to 10 years, and a decade has passed since the 2008 crash. Many economists are now on the lookout for when and how the next recession will hit. Although Hopkins Economics Professor Robert Barbera does not believe another recession is imminent, it is a possibility given current economic growth.

“Here’s the perverse aspect,” Barbera said. “When everybody’s feeling good and everybody’s willing to take big risks again, historically, that’s when you have to start thinking that you might be getting into trouble.

Floyd Norris, who is a now a lecturer in the Economics department, was the chief financial correspondent for the New York Times at the time of the 2008 recession. He pointed out several areas of the economy that may lead to the next recession. For example, the Trump administration’s attempts at financial deregulation could encourage risky lending behavior. Additionally, the low unemployment rate combined with the federal government’s tax cuts may lead to unsustainable growth.

“This is the equivalent of putting your foot on the accelerator when you are already going at a pretty good speed,” Norris said. “It certainly does hold that something bad will happen; you can’t just put on the acceleration forever.”

Nevertheless, Norris agrees that an upcoming recession is unlikely.

“This year’s Class [of 2019] is graduating in a fine time,” he said. “I would be surprised if many people graduating this year have trouble getting jobs they’re willing to take.”

In the recession’s aftermath, there were other aspects of life at Hopkins that had to adapt. Students worried about their loans. Research labs faced uncertain funding. Hopkins employees faced the everyday strain that the rest of the economy did. From the 1888 stock crash, to the 2008 recession, to job prospects in 2018 today, the University and its students have not always followed predictable paths.

“I thought my career was going to go in a certain direction, and then it didn’t,” Paulo Farqui said. “The reality is that it’s not going to be a straight line. It’s going to have its up and downs — hopefully it’ll be going up.”

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