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Growing up on the south side of Chicago with parents who spent 75 cents of every dollar they made on my college education, I still took out loans to graduate from Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and I know all too well how high the stakes are for students from underrepresented backgrounds.
This fall, 1.2 million low-income or first-generation students started college. For most of their lives, they’ve been told that a college degree will set them on a path to economic mobility, and they have arrived on their campuses filled with a sense of possibility.
Unfortunately, the odds for low-income students are still stacked against them. In fact, only one in four will graduate with a strong first job or enter graduate school. There is no safety net for these students. In fact, for their families, they are the safety net. They’ll start college expecting to leave with good-paying jobs with benefits that allow them to pay back loans, help their parents or other family members financially, and lead a self-sustaining life. Instead, the jobs that college graduates from low-income backgrounds do eventually land set them on an incongruent path to earn 66 cents on the dollar compared to their more affluent peers.
When I was a teacher, I promised my students that college was the ticket to economic mobility. So this inequality really struck me when I started noticing that some of my former students, and others like them, were graduating from college but still struggling to land competitive entry-level jobs.
In America, hard work and ambition should be met with equality of opportunity. And when there are barriers to this deeply held ideal, as are the odds for low-income students, we must address them.
In 2013, after more than a decade as an executive at Teach For America, I set out to develop a model that would empower promising underrepresented young people. I founded Braven, a college-to-career accelerator, where we partner with public universities and employers to arm underrepresented students with the practical skills, strong internship experiences and professional networks that empower them to obtain strong jobs within six months of graduation. Six years in, here is what we have learned about improving the odds for low-income college students:
As societal challenges go, this one is highly solvable. So why is it that these diligent students who work hard and do all the “right” things struggle when it comes to landing meaningful first jobs? It’s not a lack of talent, effort or intellect. Rather, no one helped this group of students develop the soft skills or build the social capital needed to launch from college to career. This diverse talent is being shut out of top companies and higher-wage jobs because they don’t have the career-building skills or, perhaps most importantly, the networks of their more affluent peers.
The good news is that we can help low-income college students close these gaps. Just like we can teach a five-paragraph essay or algebra, we can teach students soft skills — namely, to communicate professionally, work in teams and learn career-oriented problem-solving frameworks like design thinking. Additionally, we can teach students how to build relationships beyond their immediate families and friendship circles. This exposes them to individuals in the professional workforce and, in turn, enables them to get in the door and receive the attention they deserve from hiring managers.
You can’t manage what you can’t measure. As a former sixth-grade teacher and now the parent of three school-age children, I know the importance of data. It is an absolutely critical tool for gauging how students are doing. I was struck when I realized there was no single source for college-to-career outcomes data.
We’ll see faster and more systemic progress if career outcomes like employment status and earnings are publicly available by school and course of study at different points in time (i.e., one year, five years, 10 years, 20 years, etc., post-graduation). Such data should be disaggregated by socioeconomic status, race and gender. Each university should have the information accessible on its websites, and the federal government should publish the data as part of a postsecondary student-level data system, as others have proposed.
Students from more affluent backgrounds often have invisible privileges: from parents who can help their children put together compelling résumés, to a cousin or neighbor who’s recently gone through a competitive interview process, to a family friend who works at a thriving company and is willing to make a connection. But students without such advantages are left trying to jump a gap that their peers seem to glide across effortlessly.
Finally, we can go further if we go together. When institutions of higher education and employers acknowledge the need for systemic change, see themselves as responsible for creating this change, and join forces, we’ve seen students bridge this gap much more swiftly.
In Newark, for example, Rutgers University-Newark and Newark-based Prudential Financial are anchor institutions in the community, with critical roles in developing and supporting local talent.
Rutgers University-Newark has strategically grown its enrollment of local students since 2013 to 13.5 percent of its student body, an increase of 87 percent, and Prudential is working to hire more local talent.
When we help provide low-income and first-generation college students the tools to overcome gaps in skills, assist them in getting a foot in the door at a top internship and connect them with professionals in the field, they will blow us away every time. I, for one, am excited to see a world in which extraordinary diverse leaders can emerge truly from anywhere and everywhere.
This story about improving the odds for low-income and first-generation college students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.