College degree doesn’t pay off as well for first-generation grads

Christelle Louis’s single mother, a Haitian immigrant and certified nursing assistant at a nursing home, never went to college. But she always pushed her daughter to go and get the education she needed to end up in a good job — maybe as a doctor or an engineer.

No matter how hard Louis worked, however, that payoff would turn out to be tougher to realize for a first-generation student like her than for her better-connected classmates.

Despite good grades in high school, Louis couldn’t afford to enroll at a campus away from her native New Jersey. So she went to lower-cost Rutgers University-Newark, commuting for her first two years and working at McDonald’s and a liquor store after class and on the weekends to help pay for it.

first-gen college graduates
Job seekers look at job applications at a career fair on the quad at Los Angeles City College. College graduates who are the first in their families to go to college often take jobs for which they’re overqualified and earn less than their classmates, research shows. Credit: Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Louis managed to succeed despite the financial obstacles she faced, becoming part of the small share of first-generation students who do — the people often pictured smiling with pride as the first in their families to earn degrees.

“You’re not at the same place as your colleagues, even though you may be just as qualified. You’re reaching harder to reach those same goals.”

Christelle Louis, first-generation college graduate

But after the attention fades and the caps and gowns are turned in, they hit yet another, less widely known, stumbling block.

Even with identical credentials, first-generation graduates have more trouble getting jobs than their better-coached and -connected classmates, according to new research by scholars at Michigan State University and the universities of Iowa and Minnesota.

Many don’t have experience in the basics of a professional job search, or people in their lives who can help. Louis didn’t know how to write a resume, for instance — “I thought it was just your name, your phone number and your work experience” — or how to act in an interview with a recruiter. “I just thought it was a simple conversation.”

Unlike the degree-holding parents of her classmates, said Louis, her mother couldn’t help much with her preparation for a career. “She didn’t know any of those things,” she said. “When you’re a first-generation college student, there are going to be some things in your life you can’t turn to your family for.”

Anxious to begin earning an income, first-generation students accept offers more quickly, make less money and take jobs for which they’re overqualified, various research shows; a smaller proportion of first-generation graduates with bachelor’s degrees have jobs that require them, one year after finishing college, than their classmates, according to NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Related: How a decline in community college students is a big problem for the economy

First-generation college graduates earn substantially less, 10 years after receiving a degree, than their classmates whose parents also finished college, research by scholars at North Carolina State and Duke universities found. 

“They are very concerned about stability, and because of that they are also more likely to accept a job that doesn’t require a degree, even though they have one,” said Shawn VanDerziel, NACE’s executive director.

And when first-generation students do aim high, still other research shows that employers prefer candidates from elite universities who are more likely to be from higher income levels and social classes and families in which other people have degrees.

first-gen college graduates
California State University, Fullerton last year launched a program called I Am First, which brings in working first-generation graduates to mentor their still-enrolled counterparts. Among other things, the program teaches salary negotiation skills. Credit: Christina House/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“It’s just the reality of coming from a different background,” said 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’re reaching harder to reach those same goals.”

The newest research, from Michigan State and the universities of Iowa and Minnesota, followed 516 undergraduates 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.

First-generation graduates more often land in jobs in the public and not-for-profit sectors, which tend to pay less than private and for-profit employers, NASPA reports.

first-gen college graduates
A Capitol One corporate office in New York. The company has launched the First-Gen Focus program to connect first-generation students with mentors including athletes and influencers and teach them job search skills. Some are invited to interview for internships. Credit: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

“In theory they have the same degree from the same institution — they should be on the same level playing field when they enter the job market,” said Le Zhou, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota who studies social class and the job search. “But they’re not.”

First-generation students fall behind at many points in the process, for reasons that don’t necessarily have to do with academic ability or their value to employers.

Graduates who had internships are 90 percent more likely to get job offers than graduates who didn’t, for instance, a NACE spokesman said, citing survey data collected by the organization. And more than half of people who studied abroad said it helped them get a job offer or promotion, a survey by the Institute of International Education found.

But in large part because they are more likely to commute, face financial pressures and work full time while in college, first-generation students are less likely to have had paid internships and less than half as likely to have studied abroad as their classmates whose parents went to college, according to NASPA.

Related: Some colleges ease up on pushing undergrads into picking majors right away

For some of the same reasons, fewer than half of first-generation students participate in extracurricular activities, experiences valued by recruiters, compared to more than two-thirds of their classmates, NASPA reports.

They also don’t have parents urging them to get involved. In a survey at Ohio State University, the proportion of first-generation students who said their parents encouraged them to join an extracurricular club was less than half that of their classmates whose parents have degrees. More than 30 percent of first-generation students said they didn’t join a club because of family commitments, compared to 19 percent of other students.

First-generation students are also less likely to take advantage of campus career counseling services, “largely because they don’t know they exist,” said Deana Waintraub Stafford, associate director of NASPA’s Center for First-generation Student Success. Plus, “they’re working 20-plus hours a week, they’re commuting an hour or more to school, they’re caring for other people in their families.”

“First-generation college students have no idea what happens after college. Like, what do you do? I didn’t know how to network or who to network with. I didn’t have anybody.”

Gabriel Miranda, first-generation college graduate

The Covid-19 pandemic threatens to worsen these disparities, according to a survey by a consortium of research universities, which found that first-generation students have faced greater financial and family strains during the pandemic and were more likely to have lost on- or off-campus wages than their counterparts who aren’t first generation. They were also more than twice as likely to be responsible for children.

Meanwhile, employers are consciously or unconsciously biased against people with the characteristics of first-generation graduates, according to an experiment that sent applications from fictitious law school graduates to prestigious law firms. Applicants with characteristics that suggested they were from higher social classes — more patrician surnames, for example (“Cabot” versus “Clark”), extracurricular participation that gave away their status (peer mentor for first-year students versus peer mentor for fellow first-generation students) and athletics that might be considered more blueblood (sailing versus track and field) — were more likely to get offers.

Gabriel Miranda also was the first in his family to go to college. To pay for his education at San Jose State University, he worked at Target, at an Apple store and in other jobs. That left him no time for internships or extracurricular activities.

“I had zero clubs in college. I couldn’t afford the time to go to them. I had to make money,” said Miranda, who is now 25. If he had been able to fit one in, he couldn’t have afforded to take an internship. “Even paid internships don’t pay very well,” he said.

“I didn’t realize how many people were setting themselves up for success way before graduation,” Miranda said. “Me and my friends were so late to the party.”

Until he, too, found his way to a Braven course in career preparation as a junior, Miranda didn’t know how to even start a job search. “We don’t have anybody guiding us. We’re just going to college, trying to get good grades. We don’t have anybody saying, ‘Hey, you have to do your resume. You have to do your branding.’”

Related: The pandemic is speeding up the mass disappearance of men from college

By comparison, he said, “People who have parents who went to college, they know stuff. First-generation college students have no idea what happens after college. Like, what do you do? I didn’t know how to network or who to network with. I didn’t have anybody.”

Miranda ended up in a job as an operations manager at an Amazon fulfillment center, starting on a career path he said he hopes will eventually lead him into sales.

Even such small things as a handshake can trip up some college graduates, said Waintraub Stafford. “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 who you’re meeting,” she said.

first-gen college graduates
Christelle Louis was the first in her family to go to college and says she didn’t know how to do such basic job search tasks as write a resume. “You’re not at the same place as your colleagues, even though you may be just as qualified,” she says. Credit: Christelle Louis

A very small number of colleges and universities are recognizing the unique problems first-generation students face in finding their first jobs after graduation and are adding programs to help them.

The University of California, Berkeley, now offers career counseling specifically for first-generation and low-income students, including resume reviews, help with LinkedIn profiles and a semester-long jobs course. The University of Toledo hosts a networking series to help such students connect with employers and alumni and an internship preparation program to teach them resume writing, networking and other skills.

California State University, Fullerton, last year launched a program called I Am First, which brings in working first-generation graduates to mentor younger counterparts who are still enrolled, said Jennifer Mojarro, director of that university’s career center. Among other things, the program teaches salary negotiation skills.

“The first-generation student doesn’t have that same network as somebody whose parents went through college and are maybe in a professional career,” Mojarro said.

Still, she said, “it’s kind of scary to admit that you don’t know” how to get a job after college. It’s also 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.”

A few nonprofits, such as Braven — which brings its career courses to universities and community colleges that have large proportions of first-generation and low-income students — are also teaming up with colleges to offer this kind of support.

Aimée Eubanks Davis, Braven’s founder and CEO, was working in New Orleans as a school teacher whose students were largely first generation and low income when she realized the need for such help.

Related: Facing a white-collar worker shortage, American companies seek a blue-collar solution

“I was watching my students progress out of college and being horrified where they were landing,” Davis said. Though they’d earned the same credentials as their peers — often working much harder to do it — they were missing out on the “almost invisible set of advantages” that exist for students whose parents are college educated and well connected.

Braven matches students with coaches who work for participating companies. “Often that coach is the first person those students know in the professional workforce,” Davis said.

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 said. “A lot of it has to do often with the narrative and the story they’ve been told externally.” The students are reminded that “their experiences in life, even if tough and clunky and imperfect, are actually what makes them truly great and truly resilient.”

And when a student is considering accepting a job or internship for which they’re overqualified, “We’ll say, ‘No. You have earned the right to compete.’ ”

Louis, the Rutgers-Newark grad, who is now 22, experienced a little bit of that.

First-generation college students “have just been so accustomed to settling for less,” she said. “Part of it is that we’ve been conditioned to think we can’t strive for things. A lot of first-gen students say, ‘I could never work at Google; they won’t accept me.’ ”

“In theory they have the same degree from the same institution — they should be on the same level playing field when they enter the job market. But they’re not.”

Le Zhou, associate professor, University of Minnesota

Now a handful of employers are also recognizing the singular challenges faced by first-generation graduates. Capitol One, for instance, launched its First-Gen Focus program for freshmen through juniors at participating colleges and universities, connecting them with mentors including athletes and influencers and teaching them job search skills. Some are invited to interview for internships.

“We owe it to this population to invest in them,” said Shavonne Gordon, the company’s vice president for diversity recruiting. “Oftentimes these students are overlooked because in their first or second semester they stumbled. They didn’t know they had access to tutors or mentors. They don’t have that 3.5 or 3.8” grade-point average. And “a lot of companies won’t even look at them because of that.”

In fact, said Gordon — herself the first in her family to finish college — “this population of students is 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 Capitol One, they’re going to be more loyal, because they’re going to remember what Capitol One did to support them.”

Since first-generation students are also disproportionately women, Black or Hispanic, she said, she expects other companies to add similar programs as they try to land more of them.

“It benefits the company because we are actually getting access to great talent,” Gordon said. “And while that’s not the only goal, it is a goal.”

Especially at a time when companies are under pressure to diversify.

“It’s the right time to be looking at this,” said Zhou, the University of Minnesota professor.

Davis, too, has seen “some positive movement,” she said. “Does there need to be a lot more? Yes.”

First-generation students “truly have overcome so much to get out the door of college,” she said. “There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to succeed after that, just as much as anybody else.”

This story about first-gen college graduates was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn’t mean it’s free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

You may also like...