What will it take to close career achievement gaps?

Low-income students, students of color, and first-generation college students look to college as a means of upward economic mobility, but even with a degree in hand, they have a more difficult time finding jobs and earn less at those jobs than their wealthier, white male peers, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. For every dollar a white college graduate earns, the average Latinx college graduate makes 85 cents, while the average Black graduate makes 78 cents, data from the Economic Policy Institute shows.

According to a soon-to-be released study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW), white male college graduates were 10% more likely to earn a family-sustaining wage than Black and Latinx men with college degrees. Female Latinx college graduates experienced similar career achievement gaps, although the gap between white women and Black women was somewhat smaller.

Cumulatively, the findings indicate that a college degree is not the only tool first-generation college graduates and students from other underrepresented groups need for career success. A 2021 report on students’ career preparation highlights how uneven access to career networks and internships is leading to more inequities.

Related: The job gap: Hidden hurdles along first-gen students’ path to employment >

When a college degree is not enough

Sometimes, a college student’s major can lead to underemployment, especially among college graduates from underrepresented groups. According to the Burning Glass Institute, students who major in law enforcement or other fields in which a bachelor’s degree is not required are twice as likely to be underemployed than students who major in higher-paying fields such as engineering or computer science.

However, those in-demand fields can also be the least diverse, according to research from Georgetown’s CEW. And bachelor’s degree holders from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups in comparatively lucrative fields still tend to earn less than their white peers. Often to earn comparable salaries, workers from underrepresented minority groups have to earn an additional degree.

Looking beyond academics, data show that career-building activities, internships, and other work experiences outside of the classroom can sway hiring decisions even more than a recent degree or GPA. Building professional networks is especially beneficial for underrepresented students, compared with their more privileged peers.

Related: Bringing internships within reach for a broader array of students >

However, students from underrepresented backgrounds, particularly first-generation students, are less likely to engage in those activities than their peers. According to data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), first-generation college students are less likely than continuing-generation students to apply to internships or participate in social-capital-building activities such as networking with alumni and discussing careers with faculty.

First-generation students are more likely to work more than 20 hours a week and less likely to complete an internship. Only 35% of first-generation students in the NSSE said they had an internship, compared to 49% of continuing generation students. Only about 1 in 5 first-generation seniors said they had networked with alumni or other professionals in their field, compared to one-third of continuing-generation students. Black and Latinx students are also 16% and 18% less likely to complete internships than white peers, says Matt Sigelman, president of the Burning Glass Institute.

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

Closing gaps by calling out the ‘hidden curriculum’

The importance of career-building activities may not be clear to first-generation students and those from underrepresented minority backgrounds, who may focus primarily on getting into and completing college. “If you’re a first-generation college student, you have no idea that you actually need resources,” says Aimée Eubanks Davis, the founder of the nonprofit Braven, which helps students across the country gain career-readiness skills. “You think your college degree alone is enough, and it’s just simply not.”

That makes it all the more important for colleges to help students understand and navigate higher ed’s “hidden curriculum,” the unspoken rules of college education. That includes the expectation that internships should be relevant to students’ academic work and future careers, says Joseph J. McCarthy, University of Pittsburgh’s vice provost for undergraduate affairs. Students polled in a 2021 University of Wisconsin survey said a lack of knowledge about internships and how to apply for them were the biggest reasons why they did not have internships.

To position first-generation students, low-income students, and other undergraduates for strong post-graduate careers, Iris Palmer, deputy director for education policy at New America, suggests that colleges and universities should use work-study funds to make internships financially viable and should develop on-campus, multi-semester paid internships tied to students’ professional interests.

Employers also must play a role in erasing career disparities—in part by addressing “misogyny, racism, classism” and other types of hiring bias that limit access, says Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown’s CEW. The Black Lives Matter Movement and death of George Floyd in 2020 may have been “an important catalyst” for efforts to increase career equity, the Chronicle suggests. Two-thirds of employers surveyed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in 2021 said that following 2020’s racial reckoning, they had allocated more resources to the recruitment of candidates from underrepresented minority groups.

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