If we truly want a level playing field, we must focus on social capital

For minoritised students to really benefit from HE, they need support to understand the world of work, build connections and activate networks

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Wake Forest University,JFFLabs
14 Mar 2022
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Black, Latinx and first-generation students need help garnering social capital if their higher education investment is to pay off in terms of a career
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Nearly 80 per cent of current students now say they’re worried about finding any kind of job after graduation, let alone a good job, and two-thirds say university is no longer worth the cost. Those concerns are especially acute among Black and Latinx students and students from lower-income backgrounds. Nearly a third of Black Americans, for example, say they’re sceptical of the value of college, compared with 14 per cent of white Americans, according to a survey from New America.

Unfortunately, this lack of confidence – and misalignment of expectations and experiences – is not entirely new. While finding a job ranks as the primary reason students attend college, just 40 per cent of students ever visit career services. The challenge is rooted in a system where career services are largely transactional by design and sidelined on many campuses, meaning the students who may benefit from the services most are often the least served by them.

The best career service offices focus on reaching every student and providing them with the tools, resources and experiences they need to build social capital – enabling individuals to gain access to people, places and resources and, ultimately, achieve things they couldn’t on their own. Social capital is an essential tool for being career ready.

But developing social capital is easier said than done, especially when a growing number of students are Black, Latinx, first-generation, from low-income backgrounds, raising children or working part- or full-time jobs. Many students are unsure where to begin looking for help, or they lack the time to seek out the right kinds of resources. These are higher education’s emerging majority, and it is crucial they acquire the skills and connections they need to thrive after graduation.

The pandemic has, in some surprising ways, started to level the playing field. The shift to online career education, coaching and recruiting enabled students to access a wide array of job exploration and networking opportunities more easily and resulted in employers finding qualified candidates they may have otherwise overlooked.

College career centres have a critical role to play in the occupational segregation that results in far too many Black and Latinx students being placed on pathways to lower-paying jobs – or no job at all. A study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found that Black and African American students are underrepresented in college majors associated with the fastest-growing, highest-paying occupations.

Black graduates are nearly twice as likely as white graduates to be unemployed, and they carry a disproportionate share of student debt. Four years after graduation, Black graduates have nearly twice as much student loan debt as white graduates.

For Black and Latinx students, first-generation learners and students from low-income backgrounds to really benefit from HE, they need support to better understand the world of work and what credentials, relationships and set of experiences will help them succeed. For example, low-income and first-generation students often do not understand the huge variation in the labour market returns for different majors. For their investment in higher education to pay off, they also need educational experiences that help them make direct connections to the labour market in high-wage careers.

The primary way for students to gain those experiences is through building connections and activating networks. As much as 80 per cent of jobs are filled through networking, which leaves students from less-privileged backgrounds at a disadvantage. High-quality networking opportunities provide chances for mutual learning and connection-building one person at a time. Even just one conversation initiated by a faculty, staff member or alumni about a student’s career can significantly increase that student’s confidence and clarity of direction. Unfortunately, few students – especially first-generation students and students of colour – report having a mentor or career coach.

Some institutions have developed tailored career-readiness education and worked to align their curricular offerings with employment outcomes through guided career pathways for students. These pathways place careers at the centre of the curriculum, with work-based learning opportunities providing students with chances to not only learn job-specific skills but to connect with mentors, alumni and future employers long before graduation.

Institutions have also developed special initiatives connecting students with employers and alumni who can help them forge meaningful relationships that lead to mentoring, information and jobs. Students can access online directories of alumni that can be filtered by industry, major and location to find mentorship, networking opportunities and other important ways of building social capital.

Likewise, near-peer mentoring programmes allow students to receive coaching and guidance from empathetic young professionals who were college students themselves just a few years ago. These interactions are increasingly virtual in nature, a trend that has only been amplified by the pandemic. Career fairs, networking events and job interviews have all gone virtual over the past two years, and institutions have embraced the ways digital career services are opening up new opportunities for developing connections and relationships.

According to research from Handshake, a platform that helps university students connect with job and internship opportunities and build social capital, the shift to virtual career events and services has allowed students to more easily work around their busy schedules and connect with a wider range of potential employers. About 60 per cent of Black students said virtual events made them more likely to be noticed by employers, and three out of five Black or Latinx students said they were more likely to apply to a job after a virtual event. Nearly 90 per cent of students said they want virtual career events to remain post-Covid.

As the reliance on virtual spaces begins to fade, HE cannot return to the status quo. We must work to redesign career services to address the unique needs and lives of students amid the new world of recruiting and work. We must activate alumni networks to facilitate connections among our students past and present. And we must ensure that relationship-building and developing social capital, especially for students from communities long under-represented in HE, is an essential component of the student experience.

This will change our education system and the lives of the students it serves for the better, connecting learners to the higher-wage jobs and career opportunities they all deserve.

Andy Chan is the vice-president of innovation and career development at Wake Forest University, North Carolina, US.

Kristina Francis is the executive director of JFFLabs (Jobs for the Future), a national non-profit that drives change in the US workforce and education systems to achieve economic advancement for all.

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