When it comes to corporate America, it’s no secret that hiring managers are often drawn to a particular item on a resume: the applicant’s alma mater. From the Ivy League to flagship universities, there is a longstanding pipeline from these highly selective institutions to the country’s most prestigious and high-paying jobs. And wealthy students are much more likely to be admitted to these colleges in the first place – in fact, nearly 40 top universities enrolled more students from the top 1% by household income than from the bottom 60%.
As these graduates are channeled into positions of power, it’s not hard to see how these hiring practices exacerbate educational and economic inequality. But what’s often overlooked is how these employers themselves are missing out. Diversity is good for business, and the graduates of regional colleges across the country comprise an increasingly diverse workforce with the power to transform the workplace from inside out.
The Face of Regional Colleges Today
More than 40% of undergraduates in the United States are enrolled at public regional colleges, according to the Washington Post. (Public flagship universities enroll about 20% of students, while the remainder are attending private colleges and for-profits.) Regional colleges enroll more students who are first-generation, from low-income backgrounds, and are people of color – populations and perspectives that are underrepresented at flagship universities and within the Ivy League.
Not every exceptionally bright, ambitious, hardworking student attends a school like Harvard University. For some students, even an acceptance letter and a robust financial aid package can’t make up for the distance from responsibilities at home, where they may be caring for younger siblings or parents with health conditions. When the cost of a plane ticket could be put toward putting food on the table, it’s clear that a student’s choice to attend a regional college doesn’t necessarily mean any lack of intellect or ambition.
It’s also worth acknowledging that students from low-income backgrounds are disproportionately represented at regional colleges. Many of these students attended underperforming and under-resourced high schools with minimal funding to support college preparation programming or college level coursework. Enrolling in college means that they have already overcome tremendous adversity related to their families, schools, or communities. Due to factors beyond their control, a highly selective university may have been out of reach – but employers will be well-served by the grit and resilience these students demonstrate along the path to a college degree. They will do whatever it takes to achieve their goals.
Looking at the Bottom Line
There are often arguments in favor of regional colleges and the value they deliver in terms of regional economic development, driving employment growth and supporting a more highly educated workforce, or creating a pathway to social mobility for individuals. But these societal benefits don’t mean that hiring the graduates of regional colleges is an altruistic or self-sacrificing move on the part of employers. To put it plainly, these employees have much to contribute to organizational culture and are good for the bottom line.
According to McKinsey & Company, racial and ethnic diversity are associated with better financial performance for companies, and there is reason to believe that other types of diversity, including gender, sexual orientation, and cultural fluency are “likely to bring some level of competitive advantage.” The World Economic Forum points to benefits including new ideas and perspectives, increased creativity, and a greater level of resilience and efficiency. Not to mention that many prospective hires are now seeking diversity and inclusion in their workplaces.
Flagship universities and the Ivy League aren’t the only schools producing top talent. Employers that are focused on attracting a more ethnically and socio-economically diverse pool of candidates should be looking at job applicants from regional colleges. It’s time that employers begin to recognize and value what these graduates can bring to the table.