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 learn, however, that this payoff is tougher to achieve for students like her, who are the first in their families to go to college, than for her better-connected classmates.
Despite good grades in high school, Louis couldn’t afford to enroll at a campus outside her native New Jersey. So she went to lower-cost Rutgers University-Newark, commuting for her first two years and working at a McDonald’s and a liquor store after class and on the weekends to help pay for it.
Louis managed to earn her degree on time, despite the financial obstacles she faced, becoming part of the small share of first-generation students who do.
But after the attention fades and the caps and gowns are turned in, these students hit another, less widely known, stumbling block.
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 résumé, 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, Louis says, her mother couldn’t help much with her preparation for a professional career. “She didn’t know any of those things,” Louis says of her mother. “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 Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.
Even 10 years after graduating, first-generation students earn substantially less than their classmates whose parents 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,” says Shawn VanDerziel, executive director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
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.
“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’re reaching harder to reach those same goals.”
That newest research 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 résumés 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.
“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,” says 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, according to NACE surveys. And more than half of people who studied abroad say 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.
For some of the same reasons, fewer than half of first-generation students participate in extracurricular activities, experiences valued by recruiters, compared with 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 with 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,” says 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.”
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 was the first in his family to go to college. To pay for his education at San Jose State University, he worked at Target, an Apple store, and 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,” says 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 says.
“I didn’t realize how many people were setting themselves up for success way before graduation,” Miranda says. “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 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 résumé. 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. Like, what do you do? I didn’t know how to network or who to network with. I didn’t have anybody.”
Miranda landed a job as an operations manager at an Amazon fulfillment center, starting on a career path he says he hopes will eventually lead him into sales. (Braven does not have any particular relationship with Amazon.)
Even such small things as a handshake can trip up some college graduates, says Waintraub Stafford of NASPA. “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.
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.
UC Berkeley now offers career counseling specifically for first-generation and low-income students, including résumé 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 résumé writing, networking, and other skills.
Last year, Cal State Fullerton launched a program called I Am First, which brings in working first-generation graduates to mentor younger counterparts who are still enrolled, says Jennifer Mojarro, director of that university’s career center. Among other things, the program teaches salary negotiation skills.
“It’s kind of scary to admit that you don’t know” how to get a job after college, Mojarro says. 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.
“I was watching my students progress out of college and being horrified where they were landing,” Davis says. 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 says.
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 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.”
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 says. “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.’ ”
Now a handful of employers are also recognizing the singular challenges faced by first-generation graduates. Capital One, for instance, launched its First-Gen Focus program for freshmen through juniors at about 70 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,” says 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, says 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 Capital One, they’re going to be more loyal, because they’re going to remember what Capital One did to support them.”
Since first-generation students are also disproportionately women, Black, or Hispanic, she says, she expects other companies to add similar programs as they try to land more of them.
“It’s the right time to be looking at this,” says Zhou, the University of Minnesota professor.
Davis, the Braven CEO, too, has seen “some positive movement,” she says. “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 says. “There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to succeed after that, just as much as anybody else.”
This story about first-generation college graduates was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.