First-Gen College Grads Face More Hurdles in the Job Market

Christelle Louis' single mother, a Haitian immigrant and certified nursing assistant at a nursing home, never went to college. But she always pushed her daughter to get the education she needed for a good job--maybe as a doctor or an engineer.

Louis would soon discover that it is harder to get this payoff for students like Louis, who are often the first to attend college.

Despite good grades in high school, Louis couldn't afford to enroll at a campus outside her native New Jersey. So she chose Rutgers University Newark. After her first two year, she commuted from New Jersey to work at a McDonald's and a liquor shop after class.

Louis was able to complete her degree in time despite all the financial difficulties she faced. She is now one of the few first-generation students who did.

These students run into another problem, one that is less well-known.

According to research from Michigan State University, the universities of Iowa, and Minnesota, first-generation college graduates are less likely to get jobs than their more-qualified and well-connected peers.

Many people don't have the experience to help them in a job search. Louis didn’t know how write a resume. I thought it was a simple conversation.

Christelle Louis explains that it is just the reality of being from another background when she talks about her struggles to find a job.

Photograph: Christelle Louis

Louis claims that her mother, unlike her peers who had degrees, couldn't help her prepare for a career as a professional. Louis says her mother didn't know all of these things. "As a first generation college student, there will be things in your daily life for which you won't be able to turn back to your family."

In their eagerness to earn an income, first-generation student accepts offers faster, makes less money and takes jobs for which they are overqualified. According to Student Affairs administrators in Higher Education, a smaller number of first-generation graduates who have a bachelor's degree have jobs that require them a year later than their classmates.

Research from Duke and North Carolina State universities has shown that first-generation college students can still make a lot more than their classmates who graduated 10 years ago.

Shawn VanDerziel - executive director of National Association of Colleges and Employers - says that people are anxious about stability and will accept a job that does not require a degree.

Research shows that first-generation students set high goals and employers prefer to hire candidates from elite universities. These candidates are more likely from higher income families and families with more education.

"It's just the reality of coming from a different background," says Louis, who found help from a nonprofit called Braven that teaches job search skills and pushed her into internships--one of which became a full-time job as a program manager at the Amazon subsidiary AWS. "You're not at the same place as your colleagues, even though you may be just as qualified. You work harder to reach the same goals.

This latest research was done on 516 students at Florida State University. It found that first-generation graduates may be less knowledgeable about job search requirements, such as how to write resumes or act in interviews; less self-confident, and have less access to the kinds of networks other students have.

NASPA reports that first-generation college graduates tend to be hired in public and non-profit sectors. They pay lower than for-profit or private companies.

Le Zhou, an associate professor from the University of Minnesota who studies the role of social class in job search and policy analysis, says that they theoretically have the same degree. "But they are not."

The process of educating first-generation students is difficult. They are not always able to keep up with the pace.

NACE surveys have shown that those who have completed internships are 90 per cent more likely get job offers than those who didn't. The Institute of International Education conducted a survey and found that more than half of international students said they were able to get job offers or promotions after studying abroad.

NASPA says that first generation students are less likely, in part, to have had paid internships.

NASPA reports that fewer than half the first-generation students take part in extracurricular activities.

They are also not urged by their parents to participate. Ohio State University found that only half of first-generation students said their parents encouraged them into joining an extracurricular club. This is in contrast to the percentage of those whose parents have degrees. A higher percentage of first-generation students than 19% said they didn’t join a club for family commitments.

Deana Waintraub Staub Stafford, associate Director of NASPA’s Center for First Generation Student Success explains that First-generation college students are less likely not to access campus career counseling services. In addition, they are working 20-plus hours per week, driving an hour to school each way, caring for their families, and also caring for others.

According to a survey done by a consortium research universities, the Covid-19 pandemic could worsen these disparities. It found that first-generation students were more likely to have suffered financial and family stress during the pandemic, and to have experienced lower on- and off-campus earnings than their peers who aren’t from the first generation. They were twice as likely than their counterparts to be responsible in caring for children.

According to an experiment, which sent applications from first-generation law school graduates to prestigious firms, employers may be consciously or unconsciously bias against applicants with these characteristics. People with higher social class characteristics, such as more patrician surnames ("Cabot") or more extracurricular participation that gave away one's status (peer mentor for first year students versus peer mentors for second-generation students), and athletes that were considered more blueblood (sailing instead of track and field), were more likely to be offered jobs.

Gabriel Miranda was the first in his family to go to college. His education at San Jose State University was paid for by his work at Target, an Apple shop, and other jobs. This left him with no time to do internships or other extracurricular activities.

"I had zero clubs in college. I couldn’t afford the money to go to them. Miranda, now 25, says that he had to earn money. If he'd been able to squeeze one in, he wouldn't be able to afford to take an intern. "Even paid internships don't pay very well," he says.

"I didn't realize how many people were setting themselves up for success way before graduation," Miranda says. "Me, my friends and I were so late for the party."

Until he, too, found his way to a Braven course in career preparation as a junior, Miranda didn't know how to start a job search. "We don’t have anyone to guide. We're just trying to get good grades and go to college. There is no one telling us to put our resumes together. You have to do your branding.' "

By comparison, he says, "People who have parents who went to college, they know stuff. First-generation college students have no idea what happens after college. So, what are you going to do? I didn’t know how or with whom to network. I didn’t know anyone."

Miranda got a job at Amazon as an operations supervisor, which he believes will lead him to sales. (Braven doesn't have any special relationship with Amazon.

Waintraub Stafford, NASPA's chief executive officer, said that even small things like a handshake can cause problems for college students. "If you've never been in an environment that has taught you the traditional meaning of a handshake as it relates to the corporate world, that's going to be a glaring experience for you and for the person you're meeting," she says.

Very few colleges or universities recognize the unique difficulties that first-generation college students face in finding work after graduation. Some have created programs to help them.

UC Berkeley now offers career counselling specifically for first-generation or low-income students. It includes resume reviews, help with LinkedIn profiles and a semester-long job course. University of Toledo hosts a networking program to help students meet alumni and employers. They also offer an internship prep program to help them with resume writing and networking.

Cal State Fullerton created a program called I Am First last year. This program allows working first-generation graduates mentor younger students, says Jennifer Mojarro. Jennifer Mojarro is the director of Cal State Fullerton’s career center. It also teaches negotiation skills.

Mojarro said, "It's scary to admit that I don't know" what it takes to get a job after graduation. It can also be stressful. "Their parents get them really excited about being a college student, and that can be intimidating, too, that all of this is on them."

Braven, a nonprofit that offers career courses to community colleges and universities with large numbers of low-income students and first-generation students, is one example of a few organizations who are partnering up with colleges to provide this type of support.

Braven's founder, CEO and CEO Aimee Eubanks was a New Orleans school teacher whose students were mostly first-generation and low income when she saw the need for such assistance.

"I was watching my students progress out of college and being horrified where they were landing," Davis says. While they had the same qualifications as their peers, sometimes working twice as hard, they were missing out of an "almost invisible set" of advantages that students with college-educated parents enjoy.

Braven matches students with coaches who work for participating companies. Davis states that often the coach is the first person students meet in the professional workforce.

Although it covers everything from what to wear to an interview to when to send a thank-you note, the Braven approach is largely about building confidence, she says. "A lot of that has to do with the narrative and how they've been told externally." Students are reminded that their experiences in life, no matter how difficult or imperfect, are what make them great and truly resilient.

We'll say "No!" when a student asks for a job. You have the right and obligation to compete.

Louis, the Rutgers Newark grad, is now 22 and has experienced a small amount of that.

She says first-generation college student "have just been so used to settling with less." It is partly due to the fact that we are conditioned to believe we can't work hard for what we want. A lot of first-gen students say, 'I could never work at Google; they won't accept me.' "

Only a few employers recognize the unique challenges faced by first generation graduates. Capital One launched their First-Gen Focus program, which connects freshmen and juniors to mentors, including athletes and influencers, and teaches them how to search for jobs. Some are invited interview for internships.

Shavonne GORDON, vice president for diversity and inclusion at the company, says that they owe it all to them to invest in them. These students often get overlooked because they stumble in their first semester. They didn't realize they could access mentors or tutors. They don't have the "3.5" or "3.8" grade-point mean. Because of this, "a lot" of companies won’t even consider them.

Gordon, herself the first student in her family who finished college, said that this population of students was resilient. They are born to succeed because they have overcome so much to get to where they are." And "when those students come and work for Capital One, they're going to be more loyal, because they're going to remember what Capital One did to support them."

She says that first-generation students tend to be women, black, and Hispanic. This makes it a good idea for other companies to offer similar programs to help them land more of them.

Professor Zhou from the University of Minnesota says, "It's time to look at this."

Davis, the Braven CEO, too, has seen "some positive movement," she says. "Does there still need to be more?" Yes.

First-generation students "truly have overcome so much to get out the door of college," she says. "There's no reason to think you can't succeed after that.

The Hechinger Report, a non-profit news organization that focuses on education innovation and inequality, produced this story about first generation college graduates.

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