It may have taken the triple pandemic of a lethal virus, sharp economic downturn, and the national awakening to the injustices of systemic racism for many to finally realize it’s not enough to talk about equality. We have to actively do something about it.

This summer’s uprisings were followed by public statements from well-meaning philanthropies, businesses, and nonprofit organizations, each claiming a renewed commitment to anti-racism work and to embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion within their ranks. These overdue realizations are welcome, but we know it is easy for an organization to verbalize a commitment and much harder to follow through. Many are unsure where to begin.

For organizations that want to move the needle on equity, here’s a starting point: Open pathways to recruiting and hiring first-generation, low-income students of color as they graduate from college.  Expanding the pipeline of first-generation college graduates can bring employers the diverse, skilled workforce they need and students the social mobility they deserve. 

The fact that these students hold college degrees means they have already beaten incredible odds. It is estimated that only one in five students from low-income communities and first-generation students who enroll in college will graduate. And the numbers are disproportionately worse in communities of color, with only 26% of Black Americans and 19% of Latinx Americans ages 25 and up earning a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 40% of white Americans.  At College Track, we know what is behind these statistics: The reality that while talent is universal, opportunity is not. From ninth grade through college graduation, our 10-year program systematically removes the academic, financial, and social-emotional barriers that keep first-generation students from low-income communities from completing college and thriving in the workforce. And the model works - College Track students earn bachelor’s degrees at rates more than double their peers.

However, getting students through college is not the final step towards social mobility. Employers need to be actively seeking out their talent.  And yet, today, only 25% of low-income, first-generation college students will graduate with a meaningful first job or go to graduate school.

Why this disparity? One reason is that when you are the first in your family to go to college, you likely don’t have the social networks and capital of many of your peers. When we build bridges between employers and first-generation graduates, we co-create those networks and open doors to many first jobs. 

Pre-COVID studies of College Track alumni show 79% of our graduates secured employment within six months of graduation, far exceeding the national average (64%) for all college graduates. Over half of our alumni earn more than their parents immediately upon graduation, and by the time they reach age 30, this jumps to 87%. Said another way, when equipped with the academic and career supports they need, these students very quickly move beyond being low-income and into lives of upward social mobility. 

The events of 2020 have brought an opportunity for organizations to align their words with their actions when it comes to diversifying the workforce. Partnering with organizations such as College Track, or any university with a comprehensive program for first-generation students, connects you with a ready supply of graduates. You may consider designing corporate residencies, or offer mentoring and coaching to young graduates as they prepare for interviews. Make sure internships are paid, or they will be unavailable to students who cannot afford to work without compensation. And I encourage you to challenge the notion that talent only comes from elite educational institutions. 

Organizations that take this approach will see social returns on their investments. They will more easily be able to hire outside their usual circles, contribute to growing the economy, and be an accelerator of equity and higher education. These organizations will likely also outperform their competitors, as companies that exhibit gender and ethnic diversity are, respectively, 21-33% more likely to outperform peers. And they will fuel new insights and ideas, as we know diverse teams consistently outperform teams that are less diverse.

If your organization (including a philanthropic organization) is trying to combat systemic racism, is thinking deeply about how to change the demographics of the workforce, has been inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, or wants to live into DEI values, there is a solution: Hire first-gen, low-income students of color when they graduate from college. Donors with those same goals can support nonprofits focused on college access and completion who serve students with the diversity and lived experiences of people traditionally underrepresented in today’s workforce.

Ways to advance social mobility and create a more diverse workforce:

  • In addition to investing in College Track, consider supporting nonprofits making career connections for low-income, first-generation students of color including Basta, Braven or an organization in your community.
  • Sponsor a (paid) corporate residency or internship program for diverse students as part of your organization’s Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives.
  • Volunteer with a local university to mentor or coach a college student approaching graduation.