Landing a prestigious internship or job at a big tech company can connect students to networks and experiences that position them for increased career success and incomes, The New York Times says. However, recent studies have shown that these companies tend to overlook students from low-income households, who often have fewer industry connections and less technical experience.
These inequities begin with uneven access to high-quality math programs, according to a new report from the RAND Corporation, USA Today reports. Based on spring 2022 data from nationally representative surveys of K-12 school principals and math teachers, the report found that students at rural high schools, small high schools, and high schools that serve historically marginalized students have limited pathways to advanced math courses (e.g. precalculus, Advanced Placement math courses) that could prepare them for degrees or careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
Even when low-income students do end up pursuing STEM majors in college, they report feeling at a disadvantage when applying for STEM internships and jobs—opportunities that have become even more scarce after recent layoffs and hiring freezes at tech companies including Amazon, Meta, and Twitter. Among nearly 300 students, recent graduates, and software engineers who told The Times about their experiences applying for tech internships and jobs, some called the process “brutal,” “unfair,” or “disheartening,” particularly without industry connections.
“Assumptions of privilege are baked into the system,” said Ruthe Farmer, the founder and chief executive of the Last Mile Education Fund, a nonprofit organization that provides financial support for lower-income and historically marginalized students in technology and engineering fields to complete their college degrees. “It’s biased toward students who have more free time to devote to side projects, hackathons, and studying for technical interviews—characteristics that conflate privilege with student potential.”
Leveling the playing field
To compete for these prestigious tech internships, college students typically devote hours to studying for company coding tests, preparing personal coding projects, and applying to dozens, if not hundreds of companies—many of which sort and rank applicants using resume-reading software, according to The Times.
Although large tech companies don’t reveal their acceptance rates or the universities from which they recruit their candidates, Adobe, the maker of Photoshop, said it typically reviews applications from over 100,000 candidates and hires about 600 interns for its summer internship program in the United States each year.
Industry leaders such as Microsoft and Google use internal referral systems, which allow employees to nominate candidates and help them stand out among stiff competition from thousands of other applicants. However, this process can overlook low-income students from lesser-known public universities who have fewer connections and already have jobs to make ends meet.
“College itself is a huge workload, especially for minorities and people of lower socioeconomic status,” Jalaun Ross, a computer science major at Central Connecticut State University, tells The Times. “How can people who go to average state schools compete?”
New pipelines to STEM careers
To recruit a more diverse pool of applicants, Oracle, Microsoft, Google, Meta, and Amazon are offering professional internships for first- and second-year college students from underrepresented backgrounds that provide firsthand experience on engineering projects. Adobe also started a separate cybersecurity internship program with Bowie State University (BSU) and Winston-Salem State University, both historically Black institutions, as well as San José State University, a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). Interns are eligible for full-time offers from Adobe after graduation.
Last year, BSU announced that its computer science department set up its own internship placement program, in partnership with other companies and government agencies, that matches students with companies searching for interns. As an alternative to the demanding internship application process at major tech firms, the BSU program does not require students to submit coding tests and technical assessments. Companies visit the BSU campus to mentor and recruit students directly, rather than having students submit their resumes cold to online portals. To address socioeconomic gaps, the BSU program also offers campus internships to build students’ technical expertise, and training sessions and workshops that sharpen their interview skills.