Even Going to Harvard Can’t Guarantee Jobs for Some Grads

A new study reveals that black candidates from top universities get fewer interviews than their white peers who attended less prestigious schools.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Mar 10, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Since the dawn of higher education in America, parents have taught their children that a college degree is the key to unlock success and, in modern times, a middle-class lifestyle. An unspoken postulate often accompanies that lesson: The more exclusive the education, the faster it is to get ahead.

But a new study shows that for African American college graduates, getting ahead usually means starting two steps, or more, behind their white peers—even if they’ve got diplomas from elite universities—and if they secure employment, black job candidates are likely to earn less money with the same credentials.

The study, titled “Discrimination in the Credential Society,” conducted by University of Michigan researcher S. Michael Gaddis, showed that black job candidates with diplomas from Harvard, Stanford, or Duke—schools that are considerably more likely to open doors to well-paying jobs—on their résumés didn’t do much better in landing interviews than white people who graduated from less prestigious colleges.

Moreover, it took a white candidate with a top-tier degree less effort than a black candidate with the same diploma to get an employer’s attention. According to the study, for every six résumés a white grad had to send for a callback, a black grad had to send out at least eight. The task is more difficult if both the white and black grads went to a second-tier school or state university, but it’s far harder for the black grad: he or she had to send out 15 résumés to get a nibble, compared to just nine for the white one.

“These racial differences suggest that a bachelor’s degree—even one from an elite institution—cannot fully counteract the importance of race in the labor market,” Gaddis, a postdoctoral scholar in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Scholars in Health Policy Research Program at the U-M School of Public Health, wrote in the report. “Thus, both discrimination and differences in human capital contribute to racial economic inequality.”

John Schmitt, a senior economist at the nonprofit Center for Economic and Policy Research, says the results fall in line with several other hiring-discrimination studies on the lower- and middle-income sectors of the economic spectrum—including one that showed blue-collar employers were significantly more likely to hire a white job applicant who’d been to prison than a black one with a clean record.

Modern discrimination “is not simply a case of the way the police interact with young black men,” Schmitt says. “It’s a way our society more generally interacts with people of color in the labor market. It has pernicious effect.”

Gaddis’ study was relatively simple. He created more than 1,000 nonexistent job applicants, constructing detailed profiles and résumés for each, including email addresses and phone numbers. A portion of the total pool had fake degrees from either elite universities, such as Duke or Princeton, or from less selective but high-quality schools, such as the University of California-Irvine.

The racial marker, however, was established through the candidates’ first names. The white candidates had names like Caleb or Charlie for men and Erica and Aubrey for women. The black men were given names like Jalen, DaQuan, or Lamar, and the black women were given names like Nia, Shanice, or Ebony.

The results were clear, according to Gaddis’ study. White job applicants who had graduated from exclusive universities had the highest response rate of about 18 percent, while black applicants with the same credentials had a response rate five points lower. Whites from less selective schools had a return rate of 11 percent, and blacks from those schools had the lowest response rate of all: just 7 percent—a full 11 percentage points behind whites in the top-scoring category.

"Education apparently has its limits because even a Harvard degree cannot make DaQuan as enticing as Charlie to employers," Gaddis wrote.

Unfortunately the bad news doesn’t stop there. Gaddis also found that black candidates who were hired were usually penalized with starting salaries roughly $3,000 lower than their white peers, often with a less prestigious title.

African American candidates, Gaddis wrote, “face a double penalty of discrimination in the labor market. Not only are they less likely to receive a response than white candidates, but the jobs that are potentially available to them are listed with ~10 percent lower starting salary ranges.”

While the research confirms what many studies suspected or hinted at, the results are even more critical at a time when secondary education can mean the difference between a good job and unemployment, Gaddis wrote in the study. If employment discrimination isn’t addressed immediately, he posited, even African Americans with prestigious college degrees are at risk of being left behind.

“The results presented here suggest a different picture than the romanticized idea that education is the great equalizer,” he wrote. “While both whites and blacks may be able to alter their educational trajectories to improve the name of the institution on their college degree,” Gaddis stated, “blacks can never shed the penalty of race and catch up to whites.”

Schmidt agrees that “education alone is not going to be enough to solve the racial disparity of the country.” But endemic, societal racism can’t be corrected, he says, until it’s identified.

“The first thing we need to do,” says Schmidt, “is acknowledge it’s a reality.”