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Building Equitable Pathways from College to Career

By Matt Konrad

For decades, we’ve held a bedrock belief that going to college leads to more opportunities, better jobs and higher pay, no matter what circumstances a student comes from.

However, a new report from Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce says that assumption comes with a very big asterisk:

“[D]o all Americans—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status—have equal access to the American Dream?” the report asks. “Overwhelmingly, the evidence indicates that the answer to this question is no. Despite our belief that the United States is the land of opportunity, the ability to choose one’s pathway through life depends on access to financial resources. And access to financial resources is too often defined by structural inequalities, such as educational resource gaps and multigenerational wealth disparities, as well as discrimination tied to historical and cultural prejudices.”

Simply put, historical and social inequity isn’t being erased by increased access to college education. Low-income students, students of color and first-generation students are making up a larger share of the college-going population—but they’re not seeing the same career benefits as their peers from more advantaged backgrounds.

As reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Latino college graduates earn only about 85 cents for every $1 made by their white counterparts, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Black college grads make just 78 cents, on average.”

Depending on race, ethnic background, socioeconomic status and gender, college graduates are leaving school and landing in very different circumstances. And the effects of this inequity make a community and generational impact. Black families are disproportionately impacted by student loan debt long after finishing college, and Black and Latino borrowers are far more likely to default on student loans within 20 years.

A college education can still be a ticket out of poverty—but persistent inequity in post-college career pathways can also end up perpetuating the cycle.

Why aren’t students graduating with the same career opportunities?

No matter where students pursue higher education, career readiness starts with classroom learning—and racial and gender inequity in choice of major does play some role. The Georgetown CEW study found that STEM majors—a group that is largely male, white and/or Asian-American—are most likely to find good jobs as young adults.

What’s more, researchers found that “factors like imposter syndrome … stereotype threat (through which a person’s anticipation of others’ prejudice against their social identity negatively affects their performance), and unwelcoming classroom climates can discourage women and Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, and Indigenous students from pursuing STEM degrees.” These factors are among those that push women, low-income and minority students into majors where good jobs aren’t as readily available.

But even when historically underserved students pursue the “right” fields of study, gaps persist. Recent research from the Burning Glass Institute revealed something surprising—Black and Hispanic students “are more likely than their white and Asian peers to [end up] in jobs requiring less than a bachelor’s degree no matter their major—even when they graduate with degrees in engineering, education, and computer science.”

In other words, it’s not just choice of school or major that’s causing the gap in career readiness. It’s also the informal, outside-the-classroom skills and opportunities that students with less privilege  don’t have. As the Chronicle reports:

“Data show that underrepresented and first-generation students less frequently take part in the very types of activities, like internships and networking, that help job candidates stand out in the hiring pool.

The reasons are complex: Such students may have few role models to follow. Unpaid internships are unaffordable for those on financial aid. Work and family obligations in the now can leave them with little time to prepare for the future.”

A college education comes with more than a degree. But those career-enhancing benefits and opportunities get farther and farther from students’ grasp when they are new to higher education; when they have to work full-time to make ends meet; and when they lack free time, discretionary money and positive role models.

How can we help close the gap?

As scholarship providers, the most direct way we can help students become career-ready graduates is through the funds we distribute. Impactful, renewable and equity-minded scholarship assistance can give students the flexibility to choose the best-fitting school, to work fewer hours and to take advantage of internship and networking opportunities.

We can also ensure we’re providing scholarship support to students who aren’t taking the traditional four-year-college path. The organization Open Campus refers to this huge part of the American workforce as “STARs—workers who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes … [such as] training programs, associate degrees, bootcamps, and—most commonly—on the job skill development.”

However, they estimate more than 7 million of these skilled-but-non-degreed jobs have been lost over the past two decades. By expanding scholarship eligibility to students pursuing these alternatives to college, we can help bring back this missing cohort of the workforce.

In addition, we can work with both colleges and private-sector partners to bring students into work-based courses and to use private and work-study funds to develop paid internships, assistantships and campus positions that tie in more closely with students’ areas of study.

This model informed the development of the new Voyager Scholarship, the public service program created by the Obama Foundation and Airbnb founder Brian Chesky. In addition to providing tuition funds, the Voyager Scholarship also offers recipients a $10,000 summer stipend and free Airbnb housing to pursue a student-designed work-travel experience between their junior and senior year of college.

It’s also an approach that’s found success at Boston’s Bunker Hill Community College, which created a “learn and earn” program to underwrite paid internships—and also learned how to get more students connected to the positions, as reported by the Chronicle:

“Students who didn’t take part in internships said they didn’t think they were qualified, didn’t understand how the work experience connected to their studies, or didn’t see themselves as intern material, said Eddinger, the Bunker Hill president. So the college changed its approach: Working with employers, it identified the competencies required for specific internships and now actively reaches out to students in early-level courses where they have learned these skills to encourage them to apply for positions. It also has embedded career literacy in courses across the college, encouraging students to think deliberately about career pathways and the connections to what they are studying and the communities they come from.”

This combination of adequate funding and proactive outreach can pay huge dividends. According to study results reported by Inside Higher Ed, more than ¾ of college seniors who felt prepared for the workforce “reported that they used their institution’s career development office, resources or programs. And 53% percent said their career development offices actually helped them find a job.”

Getting into college isn’t a magic formula for being career-ready—and earning a degree isn’t always a golden ticket to a great job, especially for low-income and historically underserved students.

But by pairing scholarship and internship funding with targeted, personalized learning opportunities, we can work to close the career readiness gap, and ensure more students find more good jobs when they graduate.

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