First-gen grads getting less out of their job search, research says

A new study calls attention to some of the unique hurdles faced by first-generation college students as they prepare for and join the workforce.

First-generation college students are more likely to commute to school, have family commitments, and work throughout college, limiting their ability to participate in the sorts of internships and extracurricular activities that appeal to potential employers. They also may not have certain familial support or professional networks to encourage them to pursue competitive opportunities or to guide their preparation for the job search.

Related: $5M gift enables more first-generation and low-income Georgetown students to experience summer internships >

In addition, research has shown that first-generation students are less likely than continuing-generation students to access their college’s career resources, “largely because they don’t know they exist,” Deana Waintraub Stafford, associate director of NASPA’s Center for First-generation Student Success, told The Hechinger Report.

Same credentials, different career outcomes

Despite graduating with the same credential as their better-connected peers, first-generation college students are having a tougher time securing jobs commensurate with their degrees, according to research conducted by scholars at the University of Minnesota, University of Iowa, and Michigan State University. In their study of 516 Florida State University students, the researchers call attention to “the role of social class in the job search process,” finding that first-generation students tended to approach their job search with less confidence and knowledge about the process.

“You’re not at the same place as your colleagues, even though you may be just as qualified. You’re reaching harder to reach those same goals,” Christelle Louis, a first-generation college graduate, told The Hechinger Report.

Research also indicates that first-generation college students tend to accept job offers more quickly, take jobs they are overqualified for, and land in positions with lower earnings potential. “They are very concerned about stability, and because of that they are also more likely to accept a job that doesn’t require a degree, even though they have one,” said Shawn VanDerziel, executive director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Colleges, employers step up support

Colleges and universities, meanwhile, are taking steps to ensure first-generation students know about available campus resources and have access to specialized support. At California State University, Fullerton, a program called I Am First brings in first-generation graduates to mentor younger students and advise on skills such as negotiating job offers.

Related: The Georgetown Scholars Program’s growing mentorship program >

The University of California, Berkeley, is delivering career counseling tailored to the unique needs of first-generation and low-income students, offering a semester-long course on job hunting and assisting with LinkedIn and resumes.

Related: How colleges are enhancing career services to support first-gen students >

Nonprofits are also getting involved. Braven, a nonprofit that partners with large public universities, says it is on a mission “to empower promising, underrepresented young people—first-generation college students, students from low-income backgrounds, and students of color—with the skills, confidence, experiences and networks necessary to transition from college to strong first jobs.”

The nonprofit reported that, before the pandemic, only 30 percent of first-generation or low-income college students who enrolled in college and graduated were able to secure a sturdy first job or go to graduate school. Hoping to position more students for success and build their confidence, Braven pairs students with coaches at partner companies and reminds them that their life experiences demonstrate the kind of resilience valued by employers.

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