Companies seek new ways to recruit diversity. Should they focus less on GPAs?
Recruiters at big corporations often focus on college students with the best grade point averages as a way to whittle down the slew of applicants seeking internships and entry-level jobs.
But the practice is being criticized by some education advocates who say it automatically eliminates many underrepresented students — particularly low-income minorities — who may be perfectly capable of doing the job but don’t meet the grade threshhold.
The automatic “screening out” is causing some colleges and nonprofits to redouble their efforts to get companies to prioritize other skills that underserved students could bring to their internships and job experience — including the ability to lead, problem-solve, and rise from adversity.
“Most companies say they want more diversity and more people of color. But many continue to use a [job] screening process that often leaves out talented underrepresented students,’’ said Trudy Steinfeld, a college recruiting consultant who advocates for underserved college students.
Concerned that promising students were being denied crucial career opportunities, Bunker Hill Community College took a closer look at its signature “Learn and Earn” internship program.
The college reviewed its internship program last year and found that all the students who got the internships — which come with wages, a travel stipend, and support — had the highest grade point averages, leaving out many other students.
“When we talk with our partners and CEOs . . . they often identify that they were not great students. But they had the opportunity to move into the business world despite not being great students,’’ said Austin Gilliland, Bunker Hill’s interim assistant academic dean who oversees the “Learn and Earn” program. “That is not often an opportunity given to all of our students.”
Strong grades have long been key for college students looking to seize the best internships and career-starting opportunities. But many underrepresented students hit a wall when faced with companies’ GPA preferences, which, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, is generally a 3.0, or a B.
Seventy-three percent of 175 employers said they screen prospects by grade point average, according to the association, which conducts an annual job outlook survey and describes itself as a leading source on the employment of college students and hiring and job market trends, its website said.
(The association does not keep data on how GPA pertains to first-generation students and students of color.)
Data from its 2019 Job Outlook survey — collected from Aug. 1 through Oct. 8 last year — show that employers prioritize other factors among applicants as well, such as leadership positions on campus, prior internships, and extra-curricular activities, said the survey, which keeps the identities of the companies confidential.
The GPA screening issue has gained some traction as advocates are identifying and addressing hidden barriers that often block underserved students — some of whom may have scraped their way through college — from partaking in a thriving job market.
Those advocates also point to other screening-out issues such as when recruiters scout for talent only at selective or elite colleges or when applicants are reviewed on video platforms such as Skype or HireVue — a software for recruiters — that may be unfamiliar to underserved students, Steinfield and others say.
The advocates said some students get so discouraged they don’t apply for jobs for fear of being overlooked.
Some college career services officials, at Bentley and Boston universities, said they have not noticed the “screened out” issue, but added they have long been pressing companies to see the value in the “whole student” and not just a grade average. Still, they have their own strategy around the grade issue.
“If a GPA is a below a 3.0, we recommend that [students] don’t put it on their résumé so that reader of the résumé would . . . see all this other relevant experience,’’ said Janet Ehl, Bentley’s executive director of career services.
“Sometimes people have a very good reason why their GPA is not above a 3.0,’’ she added.
Bunker Hill officials said they revised the Learn and Earn program to boost internship opportunities for students. The program now includes small businesses and nonprofits along with major corporations in an effort to get a broader pool of applicants. Officials are also identifying what employers want from Bunker Hill students and proactively notifying students when positions open.
Another strategy, Gilliland said, is urging employers to review students’ transcripts to pinpoint when they might have fallen off track and when they were able to bounce back.
Such efforts have opened a door for Denis Vasquez, a second-year history and government major. Vasquez, who said his grade average is under 3.0, received the e-mail notification last month. He applied and got an internship at the anti-racism nonprofit YWBoston.
“I think the reform has been great,’’ he said. “Knowledge should not be judged based on a single-digit number.”
Jimmy Liu, a Snowden International School graduate who was recently profiled in the Globe’s “Valedictorians Project,” told the Globe last year that his grades floundered in his first year at Boston University, where he had studied pre-med in 2007. His grade average eventually improved after he switched his major to East Asian Studies, he said, and he was able to get into graduate school.
“Getting good grades did well for my transcript,” he said, “but they didn’t help with my resume.”
Lower grades may not be entirely due to inadequacies in students, said James Jennings, a professor emeritus of urban policy at Tufts University. Some students fall behind because of “what they had to deal with in life, where they live, where they went to high school, and the support mechanisms’’ they receive in college, he added.
“It has to do with how these students began their journey in higher education,’’ Jennings said. “Everyone does not start at the same starting line.”
Businesses are also recognizing the need to look beyond grades. After a series of “deep level” discussions on race and social justice, the Boston Chamber of Commerce will soon launch an internship program for first-generation students and students of color, said James Rooney president of the chamber.
“We are trying to understand . . . what are the obstacles to people from different demographics — people of color, low-income, different neighborhoods,” Rooney said. “When I talk to employers about this, I think the desire is there, but if you keep doing it the way you’ve always done it, well, the results aren’t going to change.”
Most everyone interviewed agreed that all potential employees or interns must be capable of doing the job, and that employers must find the best person for an open position. But they also said companies must look at other factors that make a potential candidate successful.
Nancy Huntington Stager, executive vice president for human resources and charitable giving at Eastern Bank, said the bank does not put a premium on grades and seeks out candidates with other attributes, including being able to work with a team.
“Too much reliance on academic success can rule out people from being considered for jobs that they can be successful in,’’ she added. “It’s incumbent on businesses to look for other ways to find [qualified] candidates.”