Mobilizing for Opportunity

A conversation about ensuring the ROI of a bachelor’s degree for all students

March 11, 2021

We know higher education can be a key to success. But how many get that key, and how many know how to use it? 

That was the question posed by Boston Foundation Vice President for Programs Orlando Watkins in introducing a forum to discuss the findings of a report titled Mobilizing for Opportunity: Connecting Low-Income College Students to Internships and Good First Jobs. The report presents research that tracked outcomes for Boston Public Schools (BPS) graduates who go on to earn four-year degrees and examines how they fare early in their careers. 

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Before diving into the findings, Watkins introduced Boston Superintendent of Schools Brenda Cassellius, who offered opening remarks. She expressed excitement about the report and the information it provides to BPS, in line with goals for not only getting students into and through college, but helping them think and plan for the future, keeping in mind their passions, talents and the realities of the labor market.

Researchers Joe McLaughlin of the Boston Private Industry Council and Susan Goldberger of Burning Glass Technologies reported on the findings. In short, BPS grads may not be getting the guidance they need or the pre-career training they could use to set them up for “good first jobs” and further success. The researchers pulled data from different sources to narrow the findings for Boston’s low-income students—primarily first-generation college students who come from families without extensive professional networks. The report focused on the public universities in Massachusetts, where most BPS graduates seek higher education. It turns out that choice of a major is highly predictive of the “quality” of a first job, with more technical fields, such as nursing and engineering, yielding the highest paying first jobs. But a small percentage of Boston students pursue those majors. For liberal arts majors especially, participating in an internship is highly correlated to landing a better first job. Colleges’ capacities to provide internships for students vary greatly: Only 24 percent of students at UMass-Boston (which sees the largest share of BPS grads) had internships versus 53 percent at UMass-Amherst. Although a new program has been put in place at UMass-Boston, the researchers encouraged a large increase in internships in order to meet anticipated need. The findings (further detailed in the report) shed light on fields of study, internship opportunities and counseling. 

Topline recommendations included:

  • Make labor market information much more transparent to students and counselors;
  • Raise awareness of and improve professionally relevant skill sets (such as communication, project management, research, etc.) regardless of major; and
  • Provide career coaching and internship placement for all.

Kicking off a discussion of the research and related trends, Paul Francisco, Senior VP and Chief Diversity Officer at State Street Corporation, noted, “Talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not.” He shared anecdotes from former State Street interns and the power of those early professional experiences for them, particularly for low-income students or students of color. 

 Mobilizing for Opportunity Panelists

  • Antoniya Marinova, Assistant Director, Education to Career, The Boston Foundation
  • Lila Neel, Program Manager - Project Onramp, Life Science Cares
  • Norma Rey-Alicea, Founding Director, NextGen Talent
  • Ginette Saimprevil, Executive Director, Bottom Line Massachusetts

A panel discussion among three professionals in the field led to agreement on several fronts: A college education is one of the largest investments most people make in their lives, and because so many families sacrifice to make that investment, it simply can’t be wasted. Schools shouldn’t wait for the senior year of college (or even high school) to begin offering career support. Ideally, conversations about first jobs should begin before the focus of postsecondary experiences are chosen so that students can understand how their skills and ambitions can find meaning in the world of work. But it’s not all on the students. Hiring corporations need to rethink their recruitment habits—for both internships and jobs—and consider new sources of talent beyond the Ivy League and the hiring manager’s alma mater. They also need to practice active self-examination through training or assessments to understand how to help graduates thrive in their first jobs, recognize potential cases of “impostor syndrome” and consider and address the ways in which their organizations may be unwelcoming to new hires.  

As Francisco put it, “We don’t have to fix these kids; we have to fix the system.”

Conversations like this and the actions they inspire are essential. Watch for an upcoming report and discussion on internships and career outcomes for community college graduates later this spring at the Boston Foundation.