Cathy Tran, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, will graduate on May 20 with a degree in sociology, a 3.96 grade point average, and no job.
Many others in her class with lower grades, however, will be reporting to work right away.
The majority of Tran’s classmates hail from higher-class families with connections to careers in numerous fields. Tran, 22, is a first-generation student, meaning her parents didn’t attain a four-year college degree. And there are no networks of people pulling strings to get her employed.
“I feel like I’m so behind,” said Tran, who earned a full scholarship from Penn. Her parents, who didn’t finish high school, are low-income Vietnamese immigrants living in San Jose, Calif. “I didn’t know about internships, I thought it was rude and transactional to ask professors for help getting jobs, and I didn’t grow up with family members in professional jobs.”
In the wake of the college admissions scandal that revealed how some rich parents cheated to get their kids into school, there’s been a focus on how affluent families use their advantages to educate their children.
What gets little notice, however, is the influence that well-off parents wield to find their kids employment after graduation.
“Parents play a surprising role in deploying their networks to help their offspring get jobs,” said Elizabeth Armstrong, a University of Michigan sociologist and co-author of Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality.
Meanwhile, she added, for first-gen students, who are often low-income, “simply getting a college degree doesn’t mean you’ll catch up to people born with advantage.
“There is definitely inequality at play.”
Getting their children to and through college, then into some lucrative career, isn’t enough for well-off parents, said Armstrong. “For the affluent,” she added, “making sure their children marry well, and that their grandchildren go to nice preschools, are the goals. Transfer of class privilege and wealth is a lifelong project.
“It’s opportunity hoarding.”
Strength of weak ties
Even if parents aren’t directly able to find jobs for their kids, well-off moms and dads use the “strength of weak ties,” according to Temple University sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab, an expert on first-gen students:
“If your dad can’t get you a job in his office, he knows somebody who knows somebody."
A graduating student must work to find work — create resumés, contact employers, purchase the right clothes, go on interviews. And many of the more prestigious jobs are in expensive cities.
“All those require resources,” said Goldrick-Rab, adding she discovered one of her first-gen students wasn’t job-hunting because he didn’t own a suit.
Schools try to help first-gen students with scholarships, mentors, and career counselors. But, Armstrong said, it’s often not enough to level the playing field.
Further hampering first-gen kids is the elusive internship.
It’s considered vital for students during college summers to seek internships at companies that ultimately hire them upon graduation. But there’s “a huge gap in the internship pipeline” for first-gen students, said Missy Foy, executive director of the Scholars Program at Georgetown University.
That’s because a vast number of internships are unpaid — “which, by the way, should be illegal,” Foy said. Many first-gen students must make money during the summer and can’t afford to intern free.
Also, first-gen students frequently have large college loans that many so-called continuing-gen kids don’t.
That means they can’t hold out for the perfect job, said Ashley Rondini, sociologist at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.
The result: Out of short-term necessity, Rondini said, students are “vulnerable to locking themselves into jobs that limit their long-term mobility.”
How to schmooze
First-gen students suffer not only from a lack of financial means. Parents who graduated from college and landed professional work can offer their offspring advice on what courses to study to snag higher-paying jobs, or how to schmooze a professor who’ll help launch a career, experts say.
The culture of the work world is often invisible to first-gen students, said Annette Lareau, a Penn sociologist and an authority on class and inequality.
She coached her first-gen student, Jonathan Guevara, 21, of Oxford Circle, to write emails thanking potential employers for seeing him on the same day that he had his job interviews. Then Lareau bought him thank-you cards to send as a follow-up.
“These soft skills are not taught in class,” Lareau said. “Upper-middle-class parents just tell their kids this.”
Guevara said he’s still weighing his job options. He added that he’ll always lack the confidence that professional parents instilled in his richer classmates: "My father is a janitor from El Salvador, and he didn’t know what I was studying.”
Often unable to offer resources, working-class and low-income parents sometimes have trouble proffering advice to their college kids.
Crystal Durachko, 23, of State College, Pa., said that after she graduated with a double major in political science and philosophy from Thiel College in Greenville, Pa., last year, she wanted to be a diplomat. With $50,000 in debt, she couldn’t simply go to graduate school. She took a full-time job as an administrative assistant in a bank, and a part-time job at a clothing store.
The daughter of a truck driver and a waitress, Durachko said that "low-income kids understand early how life works, and how networking and connections are things we don’t do and don’t have.”
But because she makes more than a waitress, she said, her mother is happy.
“Low-income parents look for stability," Durachko said. “But people with resources have endless opportunity.”