‘Who you know’ matters for job-seeking first-gen students

Social capital, or the network of mentors and senior professionals students know and can access, is essential to accelerating the job search process, especially for first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented college students, says a new report from Basta, a nonprofit that connects first-generation college students to careers. Having a network of senior professionals to consult during the search can help students with referrals or other means of bypassing cold outreach during the application process. Job seekers with referrals were four times more likely to be hired, the report says. 

However, not all students have networks that provide the resources needed to become more economically mobile after college. According to a 2023 report from the Center for First-Generation Student Success, first-generation college students who completed their bachelor’s degree in academic year 2015-16 were less likely to get a job that required a bachelor’s degree (44%) than their continuing-generation peers (52%).

“The importance of peer and near-peer networks—those networks do matter for a ton for different reasons … [but] the best and fastest and most effective way to [get a job quickly] is to have senior professionals in your network and in your corner,” Sheila Sarem, Basta’s founder, tells The 74.

Related: Social capital unlocks opportunities. Here’s how colleges can help Black students build it. >

Critical role of social capital

The Basta report analyzed data from 3,195 young job seekers who used Seekr, a Basta ​​career navigation survey software, between July 2020 and December 2021. Fifty-seven percent of participants were low-income Pell Grant recipients, 62% were first-generation college students, 17% were Black, 21% were Latine, 12% were East Asian or Asian American, 12% were South Asian or Indian American, and 6% were white. Fifty-one percent identified as female, while 46% identified as male, according to The 74.

Among the first-generation job seekers in the report’s dataset, personal contacts—such as friends, family, and neighbors—made up most of their connections. When first-generation job seekers relied on those personal connections, they asked for and received less support in finding a job. First-generation students who created a network of professionals asked for more help, and those that had more professors, managers, and mentors in their network were able to better capitalize on actions they took to get a job, such as messaging recruiters and attending networking events, the report says.

First-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students typically do not have access to social capital that leads to the greatest job opportunities, says a July 2020 report from the Christensen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

“Young people from the top socioeconomic quartile report nearly double the rate of non-family adults accessible to them compared to young people from the bottom quartile,” says the Institute’s report. “This gap should be troubling to anyone trying to support students’ success not only in school, but also in accessing high-quality jobs down the line.”

The Basta report authors say their findings can help colleges better understand and meet the needs of first generation, low-income, and underrepresented students so they can achieve greater economic mobility.

Related:‘Someone I knew I could call’: GSP’s growing mentorship program >

Supporting students’ career success

Through the Georgetown Scholars Program (GSP), the university provides academic, financial, community, and career support for first-generation and low-income students. As part of this wraparound support, GSP offers a two-credit, 12-week “Mastering the Hidden Curriculum” course in partnership with Georgetown’s Designing the Future(s) initiative, which explains the unspoken rules for college and career success. Through discussions and readings, first-year students learn about social and cultural capital, imposter syndrome, and effective communication, and expand their support systems to include faculty, staff, and mentors. GSP’s alumni mentorship program, meanwhile, connects students with mentors who can help them network, learn about career paths, and navigate the job search process. 

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