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Money, money — that's what college kids want

An overwhelming majority of today's college students identify getting rich as one of their top two goals in life. But many successful CEOs and others suggest that students pursue their passion, not just a big payday. Your Career, by Eve Tahmincioglu.

Is becoming rich a proper career goal?

As kids go back to college this month, I thought it would be a good time to ask this question because money is often at the top of students’ lists of aspirations. When they have "enough," many say, they’ll pursue what they really want.

When asked about their life goals, 81 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds said getting rich is either the most important or the second-most important goal in their lives, according to a Pew Research Center poll.

I’ve known quite a few people who put their dreams on hold in order to make enough money to buy the fancy car, house, etc. But I’ve also watched them grow old and bitter, unhappy with the job that occupied the bulk of their days but unable to let it go, having become reliant on their hefty salaries to fund lavish lifestyles.

It used to be the height of tackiness to say your plan was to be rich.

Not that there is anything wrong with having lots of money. But should that be a top goal for college students; and how will that play out for their careers and lives?

I decided to contact a bunch of successful individuals from all walks of career life to ask them what their aspirations were in college:

Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary under President Clinton, professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley:
When I began college, my career goal was to be an architect or a politician. I love architecture and wanted to create beautiful buildings. I admired what politicians did for the country. (Remember, this was 1964.)

Money did not even cross my mind. In the end, I didn't become an architect, and although I occasionally served in Washington I was never elected to office. And the pursuit of money has never ranked high.

Any young person who believes they can make loads of money first and then pursue their dreams afterwards is fooling themselves. The pursuit of money as its own end can cause dreams to disappear.

Terry Lundgren, CEO of Macy’s parent Federated Department Stores:
My career goal was to find a company where the people I met during the interview process were people I could truly look up to.  I tried to imagine myself five, 10 or 15 years from that point and visualize where I might be and what role I might be playing at that time.  I always advise young people to look at the people they meet during the interviews because they should represent the kind of person that company values. 

As for making a lot of money, I predict that the graduates who end up loving the company and what they do for a living are the ones with the greatest potential for financial success.

Jonathan T.M. Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International:
Getting rich wasn’t on my radar screen in college.  I was blessed with role models in government and academia and was planning a career in politics or some kind of public service.  Having grown up on a college campus, I had an idealistic view of changing the world.

My grandmother, Millicent Fenwick, was a formidable and iconoclastic congresswoman from New Jersey in those years, and I wanted to follow in her footsteps.  Her view of a good life was more in accord with the prophet Micah than the Forbes 400:  “What does the Lord require of you but to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God?”

I’m still working on how to do that, but I credit my family on putting a low emphasis on material things and a high priority on intellectual rigor and faithful service.

Cynthia McKay, owner of Le Gourmet Gift Inc., overseeing 510 franchises:
In undergrad studies I was preparing for medical school. I wanted to be very wealthy like my parents, live well and ultimately start an animal shelter for sick and abandoned dogs and cats. However, I took the Medical (College) Admissions Test and flunked. I changed direction and landed in law school, again hoping to make a great deal of money with a firm.

After graduation, I landed what I thought was my dream job making six figures. I hated it. Instead of money, I realized I just wanted peace of mind.

Tom Glocer, CEO of Reuters:
Making money did not figure at the top of my list — it wasn't really a goal, more of an inevitable byproduct of what I wanted to do: apply technology to change the way things were done.

Being open to money-making opportunities is not a bad thing. Running your life at age 19 as if this is the secret to happiness in life is.

Dan Garvey, president of Prescott College in Prescott, Ariz.:
I was sociology major in college and I realized that institutions were the driving forces within various cultures. The family, religion, education, etc. helped us organize our thoughts and make sense of the world. I determined that I’d put my all into making education a healthy institution for all concerned. I thought I’d be a teacher, but I soon learned that my skills and interests were better suited to the organization of education as a system vs. the education of students.

I never thought about being rich. I learned at a young age growing up in rural New England that there was no correlation between money and happiness. I’ve always measured successful by my ability to make a positive difference.

Jeff Stibel, CEO of
In 1994, during my junior year at Tufts University, I finally figured out what I wanted to do for a living — become an entrepreneur.  It wasn’t a goal of mine until my junior year mainly because I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to be “when I grew up.”  Everyone talked of becoming a lawyer or heading into corporate America, but it was never all that interesting to me.

I wanted to be successful (and) have fun and becoming an entrepreneur was the best way I thought I could get there. Dreams of riches were not a driving force for me. Becoming a success and doing what I really want to do is what's driving me.

Carol C. Norman, principal at Carrcroft Elementary, my kindergartener’s school:
When I first started as a freshman, my goal was to get a degree in elementary education. I was interested in little children because I felt that’s where you could have the most influence and still be able to mold them, when they’re young.

Money did not come into the picture at all. My mother and father told us as long as you work hard you can provide for yourself and your family.

Ask even young kids today what they want and they say, “to be rich.” You can have money but still not be rich in happiness.

Maybe all these people are just blowing smoke, doing a bit of revisionist history so they look high-minded now. But maybe that’s how they really remember it.

How will you look back on the goals you make today?