The Uneven Climb From College to Career

By Karin Fischer, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Ask students why they go to college, and they cite one reason more often than any other: To get a better job.

Yet students’ chances of landing that good job after graduation aren’t created equal. Low-income students, students of color, and those who are the first in their families to go to college often have a tougher time finding a first job out of college and earn less than their more privileged peers. Latino college graduates earn only about 85 cents for every $1 made by their white counterparts, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Black college grads make just 78 cents, on average.

In a study to be released this month, researchers at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that white male college graduates were more than 10 percent more likely to have a good job — defined by the center as one that pays a family-sustaining wage — than Black or Hispanic men with four-year college degrees. While the gap is narrower between white and Black women with college degrees, female Hispanic college graduates are similarly disadvantaged.

This persistent inequity in outcomes could undercut the idea of higher education as an engine for socioeconomic mobility. And it’s especially troubling as American campuses are serving an increasingly diverse group of students, and facing pressure to close retention and graduation gaps. The research exposes an inequity that may be harder to fix.

“These gaps by wage and employment status, they’re not small,” said Matthew T. Hora, director of the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, “and they’re not going away.”

The disparities have raised questions about how colleges ready students for the workplace and where for some graduates they may be falling short. Data show that underrepresented and first-generation students less frequently take part in the very types of activities, like internships and networking, that help job candidates stand out in the hiring pool.

The reasons are complex: Such students may have few role models to follow. Unpaid internships are unaffordable for those on financial aid. Work and family obligations in the now can leave them with little time to prepare for the future. Experts agree that both colleges and employers need to do more to help all students successfully make the transition from college to career.

“We need to strengthen the leaky part of the pipeline,” said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College, in Boston.

One factor feeding inequities in employability is what students study. A recent analysis by the Burning Glass Institute, an independent nonprofit research center on the future of work and learning, found that graduates in certain majors, like law enforcement, are more than twice as likely to be underemployed — that is, working in jobs that don’t typically require college degrees — than in fields like engineering or computer science. Black and Hispanic students were the least likely to enroll in majors with the lowest levels of underemployment.

But simply studying an in-demand discipline does not eliminate gaps. White engineers with a bachelor’s degree, for example, outearn engineers who are members of underrepresented groups, according to Georgetown research.

While academics matter, students’ experiences outside the classroom have a significant impact, too. In fact, a 2021 employer survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that having had an internship, whether with a specific organization or within an industry, counted more in hiring decisions than a recent graduates’ major or grade-point average.

Equity Gaps in Career-Building Activities

Compared with students who had at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree, first-generation students were less likely to participate in social-capital building activities. They were 13 percentage points less likely to participate in general career-building activities.

Internships seem to help underrepresented students even more than their peers. Black and Hispanic computer-science graduates were much more likely to get well-paying jobs if they had such internships on their résumés.

Yet, the students who may benefit the most from internships are less likely to do them. Black and Hispanic students are 16 and 18 percent less likely to complete an internship than their white classmates, said Matt Sigelman, president of the Burning Glass Institute. Just a third of first-generation students in the 2021 National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE, had done one, compared with nearly half of continuing-generation students.

For students juggling work with college — about half of all first-generation students, according to the NSSE data — squeezing in an internship is an enormous challenge. It can be compounded by the fact that many internships are unpaid — University of Wisconsin researchers estimate as many as one million a year. Simply put, many lower-income students can’t afford to do them.

“Workplace learning has caught on,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown. “But who takes advantage of it? Rich kids.”

Hora, of Wisconsin, noted that unpaid internships are more common in certain underresourced fields including the arts, nonprofit groups, and government. Targeted subsidies could be given to such employers to help underwrite the cost of hosting interns, he said, citing as a possible model an internship program started by the chamber of commerce in Scranton, Pa., focused on small businesses.

Lost wages aren’t all that factor into students’ cost-benefit equation, said Iris Palmer, deputy director for education policy at New America. The expense of commuting can add up; the extra bus fare or gas money can derail students’ plans. Working parents may have a limited budget for child care, or it may be tied to campus, making an internship across town impractical.

Colleges and employers need to cover the full cost of an internship, Palmer said. One solution may be to develop more paid internships on campus that fit more seamlessly into students’ schedules and that are tied to their professional interests, perhaps leveraging work-study funds.

Even so, working students may be hesitant to leave long-term jobs for one-time internships, especially if their salaries are critical to paying for college or their families’ day-to-day expenses. Palmer suggests designing more multi-semester internships to make it “safer for them to quit their ‘real’ jobs.”

Still, tackling financial hurdles may be necessary but not sufficient to get more underserved students into internships, a lesson that Bunker Hill learned. The Boston community college had created a “learn and earn” program, with interns’ salaries and their travel costs underwritten by local employers and philanthropies. But when administrators dug into the data a few years into the program, they found participating students looked very different from Bunker HIll’s student body, which is primarily made up of first-generation, working students of color from the city’s two lowest income quintiles.

Students who didn’t take part in internships said they didn’t think they were qualified, didn’t understand how the work experience connected to their studies, or didn’t see themselves as intern material, said Eddinger, the Bunker Hill president. So the college changed its approach: Working with employers, it identified the competencies required for specific internships and now actively reaches out to students in early-level courses where they have learned these skills to encourage them to apply for positions. It also has embedded career literacy in courses across the college, encouraging students to think deliberately about career pathways and the connections to what they are studying and the communities they come from.

Today, the pool of interns reflects Bunker Hill’s student population, Eddinger said.

Lack of knowledge about internships and how to apply for them was the most common reason students surveyed last year by the University of Wisconsin gave for not doing an internship, Hora said — despite the fact that two-thirds of those polled said they wanted a hands-on work experience.

The problem is particularly acute for students from families or communities with little college experience. They may not have existing professional networks, or even know where to begin. In the NSSE survey, fewer than half of students expressed confidence in their ability to network with alumni and employers to make professional connections.

First-generation and underrepresented students may have put all their focus on getting into college and see earning a degree as a ticket to a brighter future. “If you’re a first-generation college student, you have no idea that you actually need resources,” said Aimée Eubanks Davis, the founder of Braven, a nonprofit group that helps such students gain career-readiness skills. “You think your college degree alone is enough, and it’s just simply not.”

Braven works with colleges around the country, including Spelman College and San Jose State and Northern Illinois Universities, to put students through a career-preparation course and then pair them with a leadership coach. In 2020, in a pandemic-battered job market, Braven alumni were nearly 20 percentage points more likely to have found a job or started graduate school within six months of graduation than college graduates over all.

Noe Ibarra signed up for Braven as a student at San Jose State. A community-college transfer and a first-generation college student, he found the job-search process daunting, but a Braven mentor helped him narrow his job choices, hone his résumé, and practice his interviewing skills. “That really boosted my confidence,” said Ibarra, who graduated in spring 2021 and now works as a technical recruiter at Doordash, the online food-delivery company.

Now he’s thinking about how he can help younger students. “There hasn’t always been a lot of opportunity where I’m from,” said Ibarra, who grew up in Watsonville, Calif., a predominantly Hispanic city. “I want to be able to give the kind of opportunities I’ve received.”

When the University of Pittsburgh analyzed career-outcomes data for its graduates, it found racial gaps in rates of full-time employment, as well as in participation in internships while in college. Such students may “miss out on the hidden curriculum” that helps them tie classroom knowledge to the workplace, said Joseph J. McCarthy, vice provost for undergraduate studies.

Pitt’s new Provost Career Prep Academy will pair small groups of students with career-center staff members for a nine-month course focused on career-readiness skills such as career exploration, professional communications, and job-search preparation. Because the university found a gap in post-graduation salaries for first-generation and Pell-eligible students, the program will also include training on salary negotiations, said Karin Asher, associate director of the career center. Alumni from low-income, first-generation, or underrepresented minority backgrounds will serve as professional mentors.

Asher said she hopes the career-prep academy will be a way to bring career education to students who may never set foot in her office. “We know the ones who make their way here are the ones who know to come here,” she said.

The United Negro College Fund’s Career Pathways Initiative helps historically Black colleges and primarily Black institutions develop programming and strategies to improve career preparation and placement. Now in its sixth year, the effort has helped change colleges’ approach to such work, said Darryl Ann Lai Fang, senior program manager at UNCF.

She points to an institution like Benedict College, in Columbia, S.C., which wants all of its graduates to take part in experiential learning, such as an internship or study abroad, which is seen as valuable by employers. Now, when the college hires faculty or staff members, it emphasizes its career focus; if candidates don’t have the same priority, they might not be the right fit, Fang said. “We’re talking about institutional culture.”

UNCF is broadening its work beyond colleges, working with communities, employers, and public schools to widen the pathway to college and to career.

Experts agree that it’s not enough for colleges to adopt a more equity-minded approach to career preparation. Employers have to change, too.

In his studies on earnings, even when all factors are controlled for, inequities remain, said Georgetown’s Carnevale. He points to hiring bias. “There are obvious explanations,” he said. “Misogyny, racism, classism.”

Eddinger, the president of Bunker Hill Community College, recalls a local cultural institution that asked internship applicants to share a memory of visiting there with their families as children. But most of her students didn’t have the opportunity to go to a museum or ballet or symphony in their childhoods, she said. “We had to say, ‘Don’t ask questions that are exclusionary.’”

Many of the places Bunker Hill students now intern have traditionally drawn their intern pools from elite Boston-area colleges, Eddinger said, and the community college conducts seminars to help employers better understand and work with more-diverse student workers. But it’s not just about providing support to make up for disadvantages — her students may have assets and experiences that other interns don’t, said Eddinger. For example, because four out of five Bunker Hill students work, they already know how to manage their time. And they often have insight into communities and markets employers are trying to reach.

The Black Lives Matter movement and increased focus on racial and social justice, especially since the death of George Floyd in 2020, could be an important catalyst to progress in dealing with career-equity gaps. Two-thirds of employers surveyed last year by the National Association of Colleges and Employers said they had allocated more resources to attract and recruit previously underrecruited candidates since the BLM protests.

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