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November 11, 2022

Jordyn Elliott

What first-gen students want

Our findings on what first-generation students are looking for in an employer.

Key Takeaways

  1. First-gen students are more likely to seek employers that offer structured career support and less likely to apply to a job based on if alumni or friends work there.
  2. Tuition reimbursement is a “highly important” benefit to first-gen students when considering a job, however, they’re less likely to believe their college experience was “worth it.”
  3. Both fully remote and hybrid work are more compelling to first-gen students—they are less likely than their peers to be willing to relocate for a job opportunity.

According to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, 1 in 3 undergraduates identify as first-generation college students – a number which is projected to grow in the coming decade. With the higher education enrollment cliff approaching and the continued demand for skilled talent in the labor market, employers, colleges, and policymakers have a vested interest in ensuring that first-generation students feel supported throughout the job search.

To better understand what first-generation students are looking for in an employer, we surveyed 1,853 Handshake users, identifying overall trends and highlighting where this group diverges from their non-first-generation (or “legacy”) peers.

Below are three things to know about first-generation college students:

First-generation students are more likely to rate employee resource groups and mentorship programs as being highly important than their legacy peers. These employer-initiated relationships appear to signal that an employer is invested in helping first-gen college students navigate spaces that legacy students may look to their families or mentors to fill. While first-gen students found these benefits more appealing, they were less likely than their legacy peers to apply to a job based on if friends, alumni, or people they admired worked there (38% vs. 48%), suggesting that first-generation students are less likely to have a pre-existing relationship with someone at a company.

As one student described it, “since I am a first generation student, I do not know where to start when it comes to finding a job after college.” This sentiment has consequences not only for first-gen students as they build their careers (lower lifelong earning potential, higher underemployment rate), but also for employers that may overlook applicants who simply miss out on the “hidden curriculum” of the career search.

First-generation students are more likely than their legacy peers to find tuition reimbursement to be a “highly important” benefit when considering a job. This can be linked to the fact that first-gen graduates are more likely to incur education debt than those with a college-educated parent and have greater amounts of outstanding education debt.

Also connected? Student perception of the value of their higher education experience: while students overall agreed their college was worth the cost, first-generation students were less likely than their peers (63% vs. 69%) to believe the cost of higher education was “worth it.” A class of 2025 student underscored this point: “I believe that going to college has worth, but the payoff is not that great, because student loans are such a long-term financial investment.”

38% of first-generation students said a fully remote job was highly or somewhat important to them, making them more likely to want a remote job than their legacy peers (28%). The gap was even wider for what would keep them at a job: 47% of first-generation student respondents said that fully remote work made them likely or definitely stay at a job for longer compared to a 33% of non-first-generation students.

Yet, first-gen students were also less likely than their legacy peers to be willing to change cities for the right opportunities. Taken together, this emphasis on remote work may be linked to first-generation student desire to stay close to and support their family and community: one study found that first-generation students more likely to say that they pursued their college degree to help their families (69% vs. 39%) and their community (61% vs. 43%). This was echoed in our survey, with one student saying that due to the economy, they were more likely to seek out a remote job “so I can make sure my parents are taken care of based on the fact they're not educated.”

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