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New research suggests that elite college degrees are not advantageous for black graduates in the job market

By Emily Belowich

Section: News

March 30, 2015

For many years, politicians and educators have regarded education as “the great equalizer,” a system that breaks down racial, ethnic and other inequities that create an imbalance in society. But a new paper, published in the journal “Social Forces” and released to “Inside Higher Ed” on March 6, suggests that black graduates from elite institutions do only as well in getting a job after graduation as white candidates do from less-selective institutions.

The research was based on the results of an experiment conducted by S. Michael Gaddis, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholar in Health Policy Research at the University of Michigan. The study showed that while a college degree from an elite university enhances all students’ chances of finding a decently-paid job, the degree of ease with which those jobs are obtained is not equal among black and white students, even when the institution is as elite as an Ivy League school. The results showed that a white candidate with a degree from a highly selective university receives an employer response for every six resumes he or she submits, while a black candidate receives a response for every eight. Additionally, white candidates from less-selective universities should expect to get a response for every nine resumes he or she submits, while black students from schools of the same caliber need to submit 15.

Professor Chad Williams, chair of the AAAS Department, says that he is not surprised to hear about this new research. “A lot of studies clearly demonstrate that they’re [African-Americans] at a distinct advantage,” Williams said. “This inequality gap is just manifesting signs of a larger issue in American society, specifically with post-baccalaureate employment.”

The experiment, conducted by Gaddis, created more than 1,000 fake job applicants and applied to jobs online using names that “were likely to signal to potential employers what their races were.” Black male applicants had names such as Jalen, Lamar and Daquan; black female applicants had names such as Nia, Ebony and Shanice; white female applicants had names such as Aubrey, Erica and Lesley; and white male applicants had names such as Caleb, Charlie and Ronny. The fictional applicants graduated from either highly selective institutions, such as Harvard University, Stanford University and Duke University, or less selective state universities, such as the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the University of California, Riverside.

All of these applicants had similar grade point averages, but the results showed differing response rates for black and white applicants across both types of universities. While white job applicants with a degree from an elite school had the highest response rate at 18 percent, black candidates with a college degree from an elite university had a response rate of 13 percent, and white candidates who held a degree from a less-selective university followed at a near 12 percent. Black candidates with a degree from a less-selective institution had the lowest response rate of less than 7 percent.

Professor Mike Coiner (ECON), whose expertise is in the economics of higher education, mentions that this study was done several years ago. It similarly used fake resumes with “black” and “white” names that were equally attractive to an employer, but the “black” names resumes had a significantly smaller response rate than the “white” names resumes.

“This new study would seem to indicate that, regardless of one’s race, it does help to go to that selective college because you get a higher response rate,” Coiner said.

That being said, Gaddis attests to the fact that his study illuminates that racial gaps still exist in selecting candidates from both types of institutions.

“Most people would expect that if you could overcome social disadvantages and make it to Harvard against all odds, you’d be pretty set no matter what, but this experiment finds that there are still gaps,” said Gaddis in the “Inside Higher Ed” March 6 article. “Once you get out, you still have to deal with other human beings who have preconceived notions and misguided stereotypes about why you were able to go to this college.”

Williams says that it is critical to bring awareness to this issue, not only at the university level, but also at the employer level. “It’s necessary for universities to be aware of these discrepancies,” Williams said. “We need to institute various programs to bring about more vigorous attention and pressure, and we need to hold employers accountable as well.”

The study results showed black graduates from elite institutions had not only a response rate similar to that of white graduates from less-selective schools, but the employers who responded to black candidates were offering jobs that were less prestigious and had salaries that were on average $3,000 less than white candidates’ salaries.

Williams believes that Brandeis’ core values illustrate the notion that the school has an obligation to do what it can to bring more awareness to this issue in myriad ways. “It’s not just in the message we send in our classes; it’s in the support we give to student organizations, and it’s also about decisions and partnerships we make,” Williams said.

He suggests one way to go about doing this is analyzing the school’s hiring process. “Brandeis needs to look at its hiring practices and ensure that staff members are receiving equitable wages,” Williams said. “The university needs to make sure that in an effort to cut costs, the school isn’t engaging in practices that are questionable.”

Gaddis mentioned that a company can only be so welcoming to a candidate if he or she can get their foot in the door for an interview.

“It’s quite possible that these differences are not suggesting that employers are going about trying not to hire black applicants, but there is something going on this lower level,” Gaddis said. “I hope that maybe this research will make people stop and think about what processes we are using when hiring.”

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