If you look at any U.S. university website, you will likely see a statement like this: “96 percent of our students were employed or enrolled in graduate school within six months of graduation. The average starting salary of our college graduates was $54,849.”
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 55 percent of the Class of 2021 was employed full-time within six months of graduation, while about 22 percent pursued advanced education. Generally, these findings are accepted without critical inquiry into the experiences of graduates who aren’t included in the touted numbers. In 2021, about 5 percent of graduates were employed part-time, and 13 percent were still seeking employment.
NACE does not include a class analysis of graduates who are not represented within the dominant college outcome narrative, and it only began reporting disaggregated racial data in 2020. In 2021, they reported that “a substantially higher percentage of white graduates (54 percent) found full-time employment in standard employment settings than did Black or Hispanic/Latinx graduates (46 percent),” and that Asian graduates had the highest average starting salary of $75,164, compared to $56,765 for white graduates, $53,421 for Black graduates and $55,883 for Latinx graduates. These findings overlook intersectionality because they neglect to report on whether outcomes differed within racial groups across class, gender or first-generation status.
Many universities still do not consider the intersections of race, class, and first-generation status in their own postgraduate analyses. Incomplete analyses make it challenging to garner an in-depth understanding of the postgraduate outcomes of first-generation college graduates of color despite dominant societal messages that college is a conduit to upward mobility and a better quality of life.
Do universities really know if the transformation they are “selling” is being delivered to underrepresented students? Are salaries an adequate metric to assess students’ postgraduate outcomes? Standard college outcome analyses serve to erase the barriers that low-income students, first-generation students and students of color may face throughout the transition from college to career. This approach is harmful because it willfully ignores the exploitation, emotional trauma and inequities that are rampant in higher education, especially at private, predominantly white institutions.
Throughout my four years as director of an office that explicitly served first-generation students and students of color, I heard hundreds of powerful counternarratives that disrupted the notion of college as an equalizer. Such accounts were supported by my critical narrative research, including 30 hours of interviews with first-generation college graduates of color who used agency and community cultural wealth to navigate structural barriers throughout their educational and professional journeys. These diverse professionals persisted through hostility in predominantly white classrooms, which shaped their majors and industry pathways. They recounted transactional, “one-size-fits-all” advising that failed to address their holistic needs. They were told to google for answers and left mystified about what search terms to use. Nevertheless, they persisted, often due to ingenuity and support from access programs or affinity spaces on campus. Across all narratives, a common thread emerged: career development is contingent upon equitable, intentionally designed practices that promote access across race and class.
As a leader in an identity-centered space, I infused career development into the majority of my coaching conversations. However, one office is not enough to compensate for an institution rife with structural barriers. Such disparate support and the hidden curriculum of career development can have long-lasting financial impacts after graduation.
In my interviews with Black, Latiné and biracial first-generation graduates, it was common for participants to hold multiple jobs several years after commencement. These diverse professionals recounted stories of harassment, exploitation, wage theft and gaslighting within their workplaces. Their alma mater’s career development workshops did not prepare them to navigate such barriers. Despite being proud of their achievements, a decade after graduation, most of the professionals I interviewed were hesitant to say they were currently earning adequate compensation. The financial stressors were compounded for professionals who provided monetary support to parents and other family members.
This has long-standing implications for racial justice.
The average student borrows $28,950 to fund their U.S. undergraduate education. Such analyses must be disaggregated based on race, as a disproportionate percentage of Black, Latiné and low-income borrowers have struggled to repay such loans. For example, 40 percent of Black borrowers struggled to meet their federal loan payments within one year of graduating, as compared to 22 percent of their white counterparts who faced similar challenges. We need to explore how systemic racism influences students’ returns on these financial investments.
The mean wealth for white families in 2016 was $919,336, compared to less than $200,000 for both African American ($139,523) and Hispanic ($191,727) families. Further, the aggregated data on Asian American income erases inequities faced by certain Asian ethnic groups such as those who are Mongolian or Burmese, who experience poverty rates greater than twice the national average. Limited data detail the wealth disparities for Indigenous communities, though the American Council on Education reports that at every level of postsecondary attainment, the earnings of American Indian and Alaska Native adults fell between 16.2 and 28.5 percent short of the national median in 2016. Such statistics demonstrate how racism can create stratifications within the first-generation and diverse ethnic student populations. Despite these racialized outcomes, many higher education studies promote a narrative of “racelessness,” erasing differences across demographic lines.
Employers bear a large responsibility for racial pay disparities, as they set and negotiate employee salaries. However, career development literacy must begin prior to graduates entering the workforce. Without a clear sense of diverse student outcomes and the barriers to gainful employment, universities are willfully ignoring institutional structures that contribute to inequities, harming first-generation and low-income students of color during and beyond enrollment. Students deserve equitable access to career development. They are owed coaching, programming and resources that reflect their holistic needs and lived experiences. Accordingly, it is vital that postgraduate outcomes are assessed in a nuanced manner, looking not only at the quantitative indicators, but also examining graduates’ qualitative experiences within the workplace. Here are five initial questions that student success teams and leadership should explore.
- How do racism and classism shape students’ access to campus career development resources?
- How might seniors’ sense of career preparedness vary across different identity markers?
- How do the debt-to-income ratios of graduates vary across race, class and other intersecting identities?
- How might systemic race and class barriers influence the postgraduate outcomes of our graduates, and how can we disrupt disparities through targeted support and advocacy?
- What are Black, Latiné, Indigenous, Asian American and multiracial students’ experiences in their first postgraduation jobs? What additional resources might we offer to young alumni?
Critical inquiry into the questions above will begin to illuminate the programs, practices, resources and policies that need to be redesigned to facilitate greater pathways to gainful employment. If we don’t know the answers to the above questions, then we are perpetuating racist, classist narratives by situating differences in outcomes as a problem attributable to students as opposed to systems. When we use this deficit-oriented framing, we are erasing the disparities likely experienced as a result of inequities across our campuses. It’s time we start telling an honest story about the impact of universities in promoting racialized students’ access to equitable, gainful employment. And the truth is, in most cases, we still don’t know what that story is.