After it emerged this month that Goldman Sachs was breaking with 25 years of tradition and no longer extending two-year contracts to college-recruited investment bankers, my mind was immediately transported to the heady summer of 1998.

On the bottom tip of Manhattan, where Goldman’s footprint sprawled across several buildings, I was one of hundreds of newly hired two-year analysts who roamed the concrete canyons with company-issued ThinkPads and insignia satchels. We were the spawn of a booming stock-market and mergers-and-acquisitions scene that stoked Goldman, then Wall Street’s last big partnership, to splurge on undergraduate hires.

Whether you were Merrill, the Morgans, Bear, Lehman or even some Jersey City boiler room, you had to staff up big or miss out on the seemingly endless fees and commissions up for grabs. My senior year of college accordingly saw banks -- big, small and never-before-heard-of -- ply us with sushi, fondue and microbrewery rent-outs.

Dynamic. Culture. Team. Growth. Value. Vision. Down enough shrimp-tempura rolls and you could almost stomach the McKinseyglish.

Obviously things haven’t been like that in a while. Post-2008, Goldman became an intensely scrutinized operation in a hirer’s job market. Wall Street is still busy firing thousands. People with far more experience than a fresh undergraduate will gladly work for a pittance. Slow trading and deal making -- and Goldman’s stagnant share price -- sent morale into the dumps.

Growing Apart

A stint with Goldman was no longer the apotheosis of Wall Street status. But what chiefly made Goldman’s move inevitable was the loss of what it chiefly marketed to fresh college hires: its peerless reputation.

Most cover letters to the firm were motivated by a generally accepted professional compact. Goldman University was that finishing school you could parlay into anything from an MBA to JD to hedge-fund gig. Stick it out long enough, and resist having an affair with an underling, and you had a shot at Wall Street’s holy grail: the title of partner at Goldman Sachs.

The training program crammed the ideals of self-sacrifice and delayed gratification down our throats. Human resources assigned us mentors and treated us to a daily procession of executives who had “chiefs of staff.” These suits invariably held forth on Goldman’s charitable giving and lionized Robert Rubin, the former senior partner who as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration single-handedly saved civilization from economic collapse.

Of course, none of us knew that Jon Corzine and Henry Paulson, the co-chief executive officers at the time, were each plotting to get the other guy fired. Or that the firm’s partners were champing at the bit to cash in and check out with Goldman’s coming IPO. Or that Rubin would come to symbolize everything that went wrong with the U.S. financial system.

Our handlers stayed on message: Seek group accomplishment over individual accolades and compensation; fail and learn as a team; be “long-term greedy” in the company-hallowed words of Gus Levy, Goldman’s 1970s senior partner. You left feeling kind of inspired.

Only after you came off the sugar-high of the training program -- with its booze cruises and paintball outings -- would you get slapped by the reality of your real job description: endless days and nights at the office tweaking spreadsheets and pitch books. A pal who went to work for Goldman’s financials investment-banking group told me he fainted getting out of a taxi after three successive all-nighters, just two weeks into the job. He found escape by cramming for the GMAT over a Red Bull on the morning train downtown.

Reading List

Several booms, busts, scandals and government inquests later, Goldman is now a bad word. Anyone who aspires to work there will have obviously read everything, starting with that long Rolling Stone polemic in 2010 calling the bank a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” They will have pored over regulator complaints on how Goldman put a major client’s interest above several others. And they memorized the disillusioned confessional by Goldman ex Greg Smith in the New York Times.

Aggrandizing Goldman for fawning 22-year-olds was much, much easier in 1998. Ditto boasting that you worked for Goldman.

These days, as the bank contorts to try to win back its good name, its website could be mistaken for a charity portal. We help women. We rebuild New Orleans. “10,000 Small Businesses.” It is a reputational identity crisis that throws off neither the time nor the cred for the cultural indoctrination of the undergrad. Instead, Goldman must now compete with exclusive, higher-paying hedge funds for quants. Traders run the place and chip in the bulk of the house’s bottom line. Cold-eyed. Eat what you kill. You know what you’re getting into, kid.

Goldman is still the premier draw among Wall Street investment banks for college grads and MBAs, drawing standing rooms on its less-frequent campus visits. But any serious recruit who bothers to read up on the ticker “GS” knows that Goldman, public since 1999, isn’t even trading at liquidation value. In the first half of this year, the firm posted its worst revenue in seven years, weighed down by moribund investment-banking numbers. At the end of June, Goldman’s employee headcount was down 9 percent from a year earlier. Management vows to cut even more.

In the process, Goldman no longer has much to sell to -- or profit from -- liberal artsies who will churn out pitch books as a ticket to something else.

(Roben Farzad is a contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek and other publications. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Roben Farzad at robenfwd@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.