Tech organizations: Stop conflating honor with potential

The percentage of students from low-income families attending college is on the rise: A 2016 report by the Pew Research Center shows that the share of undergraduate college students from low-income families rose from 12% to 20% in 1996 to 20% in 2016. Only 11% students from the lowest income quartile finish their degree within six years, while 58% are in the top quartile.

This disparity should cause you to pause. Why is it that so few low-income students make it to college, but not complete their degrees, and are not able to reach their full potential as workers? The short answer is that there is a shortage of targeted and unique support and resources. This is especially true in the tech sector, where there is a problem ecosystem that assumes privilege and affluence in students and future workers.

These assumptions, whether subconscious or not, perpetuate a tech industry that is unable to access a vital and productive talent pool. They wrongly and continuously disqualify low-income students from the educational opportunities and career paths that are available.

Although it is clear that tech education-to career pipeline fails low-income students prior to degree completion and entry into the highest-paid sector of our economy, we don’t talk about it. It is important to discuss socioeconomic status in the “diversity” conversation. This topic is often underreported and not discussed enough.

What does it mean for privilege to be conflated with potential?

Tech recruitment, from internships to full-time positions, happens long before graduation. This recruitment structure rewards and overvalues characteristics that are more indicative of privilege than talent or potential. High-potential, low-income students often do not fit into the “ideal candidates” archetype. What is the cause of this? How can we stop it from happening again?

When you ask tech hiring managers about the skills they need to succeed, they might say they are looking for candidates with:

  • You have great problem-solving abilities.
  • Demonstrates time management skills.
  • Are hardworking.
  • Resilient and willing to endure difficult problems
  • They are adaptable.

These skills can be derived from many experiences. For example, a student who works full-time while earning a technical degree will have a strong work ethic and time management skills. First-generation students who navigate college on their own, without any support from family or friends, are likely to develop impressive problem-solving abilities. These skills are not objective, but they are essential for success in tech.

These skills are often not considered part of the recruitment process and are unfairly overshadowed in other areas like:

  • Privilege high school experiences (test prep, high-quality advice, access to higher level math courses, etc.) can open doors to a college/university and all the opportunities and support that go with it.
  • You have the financial means and time (i.e. you don’t have to work to support yourself or can work less hours) to join campus clubs and networks, hackathons and/or conferences or networking events on weekends or evenings.
  • You will need the up-front cash as well as the knowledge to relocate or interview for a job in person.
  • GPA, test scores and other quantitative measures are greatly affected by privilege. This includes access to expensive prep courses and rigorous math preparation before college. But most importantly, it is the ability to only focus on academics for those who do not need to work to support their families.

Many of the factors listed above, along with social capital, are used to award and recognize individuals.

These criteria, unlike the first, are considered indicators of “potential.” However this requires privilege and affluence that is not available to most students. These experiences require time and energy, which can make it difficult to care for family members, their job paying tuition and other important responsibilities. These experiences often require independent money. Most of them favor extracurricular networks, knowledge and privilege.

This is a huge missed opportunity that could have dire consequences. The tech industry must separate event attendance, awards, and where one went to college from one’s ability to succeed within the industry. They are not the same thing. If we continue to confuse privilege with potential, it will be difficult to access the community of high-potential students. This will result in a talent shortage and a smaller tech sector.

What now?

What can tech course-correct do to make sure that low-income students are supported throughout their entire tech journeys?

Low-income recruits have equal opportunities

More than half (55%) of college students report living in housing insecurity. Simply put, it’s hard to pass your computer science exam if you can’t afford your rent. Completing an assignment is almost impossible if your internet is slow.

These barriers, both new and old, must be understood and addressed. Then we can invest in resources to break them down.

First, invest in and support organizations that fill these needs for students from low income backgrounds. If you are a decision-maker, HR representative, or a tech company’s general manager, make sure you provide all interns and new hires support for relocation and onboarding.

Do not assume that students will have enough credit or family funds to pay these expenses upfront. Wait weeks for reimbursement. This allows candidates to be their best selves.

To invest in diversity, you can invest in college students

Tech sector invests in the beginning of the tech pipeline. Companies concentrate 66% on K-12 programs and 3% on college-level programming.

K-12 investments are vital, but higher education needs to be followed up on. Students must be enrolled in their degree programs and supported throughout the process. This will provide immediate benefits in the form tech talent, as well as more diverse minds that contribute to the technological innovations that elevate all of us.

This is what it means in practice. Let’s take one example: If you hire someone who is in their senior year, pay for their spring term. You should invest in your future employees. Give them the freedom to concentrate on the classes that will best prepare them for the job.

The current generation of computing graduates and the tech sector in general do not reflect our diverse society. This is because the tech industry continues in conflating privilege with potential.

This has created a homogeneous sector of tech that creates critical technologies that aren’t for everyone. It is past time to invest in and support low-income students across the entire tech pipeline.

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