The number of low-income students attending college is increasing: according to a Pew Research Center Report 2016, the total share of undergraduates from low-income families increased from 12% in 1996 to 20% in 2016. However, only 11% of students in the bottom income quartile graduate in six years, compared to 58% for those in the upper quartile.
This gap should give you pause. Why do so many low-income students make it to university but fail to graduate and, as a result, fail to reach their full potential in the workforce? A short answer encompasses the problem: a lack of unique and focused support and resources. And, in the tech sector in particular, this lack of support stems from a problematic ecosystem that often assumes privilege and wealth from its students and future employees.
These assumptions (unconscious or not) perpetuate a tech industry that fails to access a critical and successful talent pool by wrongly and consistently disqualifying low-income students from education and career opportunities that open doors. .
It’s clear that the pipeline from tech education to career is failing low-income students before they graduate and enter one of the highest-paid sectors of our economy – but we’re not talking about it. not. Socioeconomic status needs to be part of the conversation about “diversity” – it is underestimated and under discussed.
What does it mean to confuse privilege and potential?
As in many industries, tech recruiting (from internships to full-time jobs) happens long before graduation. High-potential, low-income students often do not fit the archetype of the “ideal candidate” sought by this recruiting structure, which overvalues and rewards characteristics that are often a better indicator of privilege than talent or potential. How does this happen and how can we stop it?
If you ask hiring managers what skills might be needed to be successful in the tech industry, they can say they’re looking for new candidates who:
- Have great problem solving skills.
- Have demonstrated time management skills.
- Are laborious.
- Are resilient and willing to persevere in difficult problems.
- Are adaptable.
These skills can come from many different experiences – for example, a student working full or part time while pursuing a technical degree acquires a strong work ethic, time management prowess, and resilience. A first-generation student who navigates the college experience on his own without the benefit of family knowledge or social media is likely to acquire impressive problem-solving skills. While these are subjective, they are incredibly valuable skills to be successful in technology.
However, in recruiting practices, these demonstrated skills rarely form part of the equation and are unfairly overshadowed by things like:
- Privileged high school experiences (including test preparation, high-quality counseling, access to top-level math courses) that open the doors to a prestigious university, and the many opportunities and supports that come with it .
- The financial means and time (i.e. not having to work to support yourself or the ability to work fewer hours) to participate in campus clubs and networks, attend hackathons and / or attend conferences or networking events on weekends and evenings.
- The initial money and knowledge to travel for a face-to-face job interview or move for an internship.
- Test scores, GPA, and other quantitative metrics heavily influenced by privilege, such as access to expensive test preparation courses, rigorous math preparation before college, and most importantly, the freedom to focus only on academics offered to those who do not have to. work to support themselves and their families.
- Awards and recognitions based on many of the above factors as well as social capital.
Unlike the first set, these criteria are considered markers of “potential”. However, obtaining these markers requires a certain degree of privilege and wealth unattainable by most students. All of these experiences take time and energy away from caring for family, work that pays for education, and other important responsibilities outside of the classroom. Many of these experiments require independent money; most of these experiences focus on extracurricular networks, prior knowledge and preparatory privilege.
This is a huge missed opportunity with dire consequences. Technology industry must dissociate attendance at events, rewards, and where one went to school from one’s actual ability to be successful in the industry. These are not the same, and if we continue to confuse privilege with potential, we will fail to access this community of high potential students, leaving us with an ongoing talent shortage and a less diverse tech sector.
How can tech courses correct to ensure low income students have unique support throughout their career? all technological path?
Level the playing field for low-income recruits
More than half of college students say experience the precariousness of housing. To put it bluntly: Passing your computer exam is tough when you can’t pay your rent, and completing an assignment is nearly impossible if you don’t have a fast internet connection.
To overcome these barriers (new and old), we need to understand them, and then invest in resources that remove them.
First, support and invest in organizations that strive to fill these gaps for students from low-income backgrounds. Second, level the playing field for all new hires – if you are a decision maker or HR representative in a tech company, make sure you provide all interns and new hires with door-to-door support for relocation and integration.
Don’t assume students have the credit or family funding to cover these costs up front and wait weeks for repayment. This allows candidates to show themselves in their best light.
Investing in students to invest in diversity
The tech sector tends to invest at the start of the tech pipeline –– firms concentrate 66% of their philanthropic funding for K-12 programs, compared to 3% for college programs.
K-12 investments are important but require follow-up at the tertiary level to generate the talent we need. We need to make sure students complete their degrees (and support them throughout their journey) – this will produce immediate returns in the form of ready tech talent and more diverse minds contributing to the technological innovations that uplift us all.
What does this mean in practice? Here’s an example: If you hire a new employee who is still in their final year, cover their spring term. Invest in your future employees; give them the space to focus on the last high-level courses that will prepare them better for work, rather than letting them worry about paying tuition, rent and other expenses over the last few months reviews.
The current population of computer science graduate students and the tech industry as a whole do not reflect our diverse society – not only in terms of race and gender, but socio-economic status as well.. And that’s because the tech industry keep on going to confuse privilege and potential.
The result is a seamless tech industry creating critical technologies that don’t serve everyone equally. It is high time to uniquely support and invest in low-income students throughout the tech pipeline.