As her graduation from New York’s Baruch College approached in 2018, Vanessa Mercedes dutifully sent out her resume. She watched classmates snap up offers at companies like Procter & Gamble and Facebook. But every time she applied, nothing happened.
That’s when she realized just how important it is to have a professional network — something others seemed to have already. She had missed out on establishing those critical links while pursuing her degree and juggling two jobs.
“I cried at graduation,” she says, “because I realized that it’s not enough to have a college degree.”
The sad truth? She’s no outlier.
I’ve spent the last decade studying how people make meaningful connections and how those connections open doors to opportunity. For example, an estimated half of internships and jobs come through personal connections. But the social side of the equation is woefully absent from the dominant narrative about opportunity in America.
There is an unspoken understanding in business, from the boardroom to the mail room, and from retirees to newcomers, that who you know matters immensely. Still, the idea of meritocracy holds that those who work hard enough can get where they want to go.
Reality tells a different story. Most young workers today aren’t attaining a “good job,” meaning one that affords economic self-sufficiency (in Massachusetts, that requires annual pay of at least $43,000), until their early 30s. Stark disparities persist across class, race, and ethnicity.
Meanwhile, the average college graduate owes roughly $30,000, and 40 percent of recent grads wind up in roles not requiring a degree.
We must ask the hard question, then, of institutions selling the promise of a better life: Are colleges doing enough to help students secure good jobs?
The answer is no. Colleges’ career services offer low value and see low usage. A lone staff member typically supports over 2,000 students. Many only offer the occasional job fair and arcane alumni directories. It’s no wonder that among an array of career skills, the ability to network is the one college seniors say they’re least confident in.
One elite institution, however, has taken a radically different approach.
In 2016, only 37 percent of Johns Hopkins University students were satisfied with the school’s career services. Johns Hopkins took a new tack: “Life Design,” a comprehensive, campus-wide approach that assigns students a mentor in a field related to their interests and expands access to internships, study abroad, and research experiences.
The program’s founder, Farouk Dey, sees Life Design as a fundamental reimagining of traditional career services’ late-in-the-game, transactional approach. Mentors can encourage students to try things they might deem too risky. And more experiences outside the classroom help students graduate with a diverse network across industries. It’s paying off: Student satisfaction with career services has nearly doubled. And six months after graduation, Hopkins’s first-generation college graduates are now employed or enrolled in graduate school at the same rate as their peers.
Unfortunately, Hopkins’s model remains the exception.
Social entrepreneurs are also stepping in where most institutions have floundered. Basta, a New York City nonprofit working to close the employment gap for first-generation students of color, helps participants build a strong professional network and highlight transferable skills from having managed work and full-time studies. In turn, 75 percent of its fellowship participants secure jobs, at an average starting salary of $62,000.
“A degree is the baseline, but social capital is the connective tissue that leads to a first job in a desired career pathway,” Basta’s founder, Sheila Sarem, says.
College’s anemic career services cost everyone. But first-generation students like Vanessa Mercedes pay the biggest price. While more affluent students with college-educated parents can tap personal connections, those without inherited networks are at a steep disadvantage.
A month after graduating with no job offers, Mercedes joined Basta’s 10-week fellowship. Coaches encouraged her to consider finance roles for which she’d initially felt underqualified. With support and networking, she soon landed a job at Bloomberg, where she now works as an account manager for a global bank.
Meritocracy’s champions may argue that what you know, not who you know, matters most. But relationships deeply affect students’ sense of what’s possible and buoy graduates throughout their careers. As one of over 50 Basta alumni working at Bloomberg, Mercedes serves as a mentor and regularly engages with other alums. “There is so much more that I can learn,” she says. “I want to build my skills so that I feel comfortable having conversations with the CEO or the owner of any bank.”
For decades, we’ve sent students a clear message: Go to college to improve your prospects, and hard work will take care of the rest. But it turns out there’s a gap — sometimes a wide one — between earning a degree and landing a job. That gap will persist until college leaders stop treating career services as an afterthought and start helping students build the networks they need to get the jobs they want.