3 Strategies to Recruit and Support First-Gen College Grads – Harvard Business Review

Today’s employers have made great strides in building more diverse recruiting pipelines — and yet recent research suggests that one group of candidates still tends to slip through the cracks: first-generation college students. The authors share the results of a series of surveys with thousands of students and dozens of recruiters across the U.S., and they highlight three ways employers can better engage with this underutilized talent pool: End pay-to-play internships, rethink what constitutes “relevant” experience, and provide the mentorship and career coaching that first-gen candidates may be less likely to have access to on their own. Ultimately, the authors argue that employers have a responsibility to understand and address the unique challenges these job-seekers face — and that especially in the face of ever-fiercer competition for talent, they only stand to benefit from greater access to this large pool of highly qualified yet often overlooked candidates.
Stefany graduated with a STEM degree and a 3.85 GPA. She entered the job market with glowing references from five years of part-time professional experience and a track record of strong teamwork and customer service. She is exactly the kind of talent that recruiters spend thousands of dollars every year looking for. But none of them found Stefany.
Stefany is a first-generation college student, meaning that neither of her parents hold a four-year degree. She has the skills to thrive in a competitive workplace, but she lacks the guidance and cultural know-how to successfully navigate the complex world of corporate recruiting. First-gen students like Stefany may have exceptional qualifications, but structural barriers throughout the recruiting process create innumerable obstacles — from a lack of connections to obligations outside school and work — that make it harder for them to launch their careers. These challenges are often compounded by racial and class-based inequities, as first-gen candidates are more likely to be students of color and come from lower-income families. And while many employers have made great strides in building more diverse pipelines, our recent research suggests that many first-gen candidates are still slipping through the cracks.
Through a series of in-depth surveys conducted in November and December 2020 with thousands of students and dozens of corporate recruiters across the United States, we explored the disconnects that continue to exclude qualified first-gen candidates from recruitment pipelines, and developed three key strategies to help employers better engage with this underutilized talent pool:
Should employers charge candidates thousands of dollars to apply for a job?
It may seem like a ridiculous question, but many companies do exactly that. Internships are an essential source of talent, with a 2019 study finding that 70% of interns receive full-time offers from their employers. For many first-gen students, however, accepting an internship — around 40% of which are unpaid — costs more than they can afford.
In our research, we found that first-gen students were 22% more likely than their peers to rate compensation as a top factor in their decision to accept an internship. This is hardly surprising: First-gen students tend to have lower incomes and more student loan debt than their peers, and they are also more likely to be responsible for providing supplemental income to their families. In the words of one first-gen candidate:
Most important [when deciding on an internship] is pay, because I have bills to pay. I have things that I have to worry about financially. I don’t have the money to sublet an apartment in a major city unless I’m getting paid a decent amount.
Our research also highlighted how even paid internships can be a major financial burden. Many of these positions require students to pay for housing in often-expensive urban centers, or for a tenable work-from-home setup with reliable Wi-Fi and sufficient privacy to take Zoom calls all day. We found that 38% of first-gen college students would be unable to accept an internship without housing support — nearly twice the rate for other students.
This creates an unseen “price of entry” in many recruiting pipelines, and it’s a price that many students simply cannot afford. Paying interns a living wage and providing support for expenses such as housing and transportation opens the door to lower-income students, empowering employers to develop relationships with a broader array of potential future candidates and dramatically increasing the chances that these students will be successful in the job market post-graduation.
The challenges first-gen students face are not solely financial. Many recruiters make assumptions (consciously or otherwise) about what kinds of experience are “relevant,” and these biases can disproportionately exclude highly qualified first-gen students whose resumes don’t check the standard boxes. Research has shown that recruiters often look for candidates with backgrounds and experiences similar to their own, meaning that students whose prior work and extracurricular experience is different than that of the hiring team may be overlooked. This bias is likely part of why we found that first-gen candidates were 15% less likely than other students to receive an internship or full-time offer by December of their senior years.
To be sure, sifting through dozens, sometimes hundreds of resumes for every open position can pose a real challenge to hiring teams. Developing shortcuts that enable recruiters to quickly triage candidates based on their resumes is an understandable approach — but relying on a limited set of signals such as industry-specific work experience leaves employers with major blind spots. Especially for entry-level roles, industry experience is often a lot less relevant to a candidate’s likelihood of success than a strong work ethic, the ability to communicate effectively, and other skills that can be developed just as well in retail or customer service as in a brand-name internship. As one student noted:
I don’t have a lot of professional-sounding experience. The only real work experience I have is [in retail]…It’s hard because recruiters wonder what can they gain skill-wise [by hiring a candidate with my experience]?’ 
First-gen students are more likely to be priced out of prestigious (yet low-paying) internships while in college, meaning that when they graduate, they are more likely to be screened out in favor of candidates whose circumstances allowed them to focus on building their resumes in college, rather than on paying the bills. This one-two punch — lack of access to underpaid resume-builders, and lack of recognition for the value of the experience they do have — results in a vicious cycle that keeps recruiters from identifying these qualified candidates.
To address this, employers should focus on candidates’ skillsets, rather than on the specific contexts in which those skills may have been developed. This may mean rethinking the keywords you look for in resumes and expanding the types of jobs that you consider “relevant.” After all, industry-specific knowledge can often be learned post-hire, while many of the skills that are both the most important and the hardest to train can be cultivated through the types of retail or customer service jobs that traditional evaluation systems tend to overlook.
Of course, work experience is just one small part of how candidates are evaluated — and it’s far from the only area in which first-gen students may find themselves at a disadvantage. One of the biggest challenges we identified through our research was that first-gen students are less likely to have connections and mentors that can help them identify job opportunities in the first place, and then guide them through the complicated recruiting process. In our study, we found that first-gen students were 21% less likely than their non-first-gen peers to have spoken with alumni at the companies where they were recruited during the job search process. Unlike their peers, first-gen candidates might not have friends or family members who can explain the intricacies of interview etiquette or interpret the jargon of corporate job descriptions. This can lead them to struggle in the traditional job search process, again causing employers to miss out on candidates who may be more than qualified to do the job, but don’t know how to demonstrate it through the signals that recruiters expect.
Broadening those expectations is one part of the solution, but employers can also help narrow the gap by providing the mentorship and coaching that some candidates might not otherwise have access to. For example, 63% of the first-gen students we interviewed were concerned about their ability to connect with recruiters during an interview. Employers can address this by offering practice interviews or informal ask-me-anything coffee chats with current employees, helping candidates to get more comfortable with the interview process and thus boosting their ability to accurately showcase their potential. Similarly, many first-gen students may be less familiar with recruiting timelines, resume conventions, and other unwritten rules of the corporate world. As one interviewee noted, employers can even the playing field by proactively sharing information and demystifying expectations:
I think overall increasing the transparency of information that’s provided [would help], especially to younger college students, so they don’t miss out on any opportunities down the line.
Employers can offer this information directly, and can also identify intermediaries who may be better positioned to reach these candidates. For example, professors who teach introductory courses may be willing to share information about job opportunities and processes with their students. Similarly, many universities have first-generation student groups that may be eager to partner with employers willing to provide their members with mentorship and guidance.
Leaning into the role of career mentor both reduces inequities and enables recruiters to expand their networks beyond the candidates who are already well connected and savvier when it comes to attracting recruiters’ attention. Furthermore, a positive, supportive hiring experience in which recruiters build genuine relationships with candidates and provide real, impactful mentorship ultimately makes it more likely that these candidates will accept a job offer and/or speak highly of the employer among their own networks, creating a win-win for both recruiters and candidates.
At the end of the day, there is little difference between a process that misses a potential candidate and one that misses a candidate’s potential. For Stefany — and for the millions of first-gen students who graduate every year — employers who understand and address the unique challenges these candidates face can help bridge the gap. And as competition for top entry-level talent grows fiercer, employers stand to benefit more than ever from access to a large pool of highly qualified yet often overlooked candidates.

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