If you care about diversity, don't just hire from the same five schools
By Meena Boppana
EDIT: Our university hiring platform is now on Product Hunt!
If you’re a software engineer, you probably believe that, despite some glitches here and there, folks who have the technical chops can get hired as software engineers. We regularly hear stories about college dropouts, who, through hard work and sheer determination, bootstrapped themselves into millionaires. These stories appeal to our sense of wonder and our desire for fairness in the world, but the reality is very different. For many students looking for their first job, the odds of breaking into a top company are slim because they will likely never even have the chance to show their skills in an interview. For these students (typically ones without a top school on their resume), their first job is often a watershed moment where success or failure can determine which opportunities will be open to them from that point forward and ultimately define the course of their entire career. In other words, having the right skills as a student is nowhere near enough to get you a job at a top-tier tech company.
To make this point concrete, consider three (fictitious, yet indicative) student personas, similar in smarts and skills but attending vastly different colleges. All are seeking jobs as software engineers at top companies upon graduation.
Mason goes to Harvard. He has a mediocre GPA but knows that doesn’t matter to tech companies, where some of his friends already work. Come September, recent graduates and alums fly back to campus on their company’s dime in order to recruit him. While enjoying a nice free meal in Harvard Square, he has the opportunity to ask these successful engineers questions about their current work. If he likes the company, all he has to do is accept the company’s standing invitation to interview on campus the next morning.
Emily is a computer science student at a mid-sized school ranked in the top 30 for computer science. She has solid coursework in algorithms under her belt, a good GPA, and experience as an engineering intern at a local bank. On the day of her campus’s career fair, she works up the courage to approach companies – this will be her only chance to interact with companies where she dreams of working. Despite the tech industry being casual, the attire of this career fair is business formal with a tinge of sweaty. So after awkwardly putting together an outfit she would never wear again1, she locates an ancient printer on the far side of campus and prints 50 copies of her resume. After pushing through the lines in order to line up at the booths of tech companies, she gives her resume to every single tech company at the fair over the course of several hours. She won’t find out for two more weeks if she got any interviews.
Anthony goes to a state school near the town where he grew up. He is top in his class, as well as a self-taught programmer, having gone above and beyond his coursework to hack together some apps. His school’s career fair has a bunch of local, non-tech employers. He has no means of connecting with tech companies face-to-face and doesn’t know anyone who works in tech. So, he applies to nearly a hundred tech companies indiscriminately through their website online, uploading his resume and carefully crafted cover letter. He will probably never hear from them.
Career fair mania
The status quo in university recruiting revolves around career fairs and in-person campus recruiting, which have serious limitations. For one, they are extremely expensive, especially at elite schools. Prime real estate at the MIT career fair will run you a steep $18,000, for entry alone. That’s not counting the price of swag (which gets more exorbitant each year), travel, and, most importantly, the opportunity cost of attending engineers’ time. While college students command the lowest salaries, it’s not uncommon for tech companies to spend 50% more on recruiting a student than a senior engineer.
At elite schools, the lengths to which companies go to differentiate themselves is becoming more exorbitant with each passing year. In fact, students at elite colleges suffer from company overload because every major tech company, big and small, is trying to recruit them. All of this, while students at non-elite colleges are scrambling to get their foot in the door without any recruiters, let alone VPs of high-profile companies, visiting their campus.
Of course, due to this cost, companies are limited in their ability to visit colleges in person, and even large companies can visit around 15 or 20 colleges at most. This strategy overlooks top students at solid CS programs that are out of physical reach.
In an effort to overcome this, companies are attending conferences and hackathons out of desperation to reach students at other colleges. The sponsorship tier for the Grace Hopper Conference, the premier gathering for women in tech, tops out at $100,000, with the sponsorship tier to get a single interview booth starting at $30,000. Additionally, larger companies send representatives (usually engineers) to large hackathons in an effort to recruit students in the midst of a 48-hour all-nighter. However, the nature of in-person career fairs and events are that not all students will be present. Grace Hopper is famously expensive to attend as a student, especially when factoring in airfare and hotel.
This cost is inefficient at best, and prohibitive at worst, especially for small startups with low budget and brand. Career fairs serve a tiny portion of companies and a tiny portion of students, and the rest are caught in the pecuniary crossfire. Demand for talented engineers out of college who bring a different lived experience to tech has never been higher, yet companies are passing on precisely these students via traditional methods. Confounding the issue even further is the fundamental question of whether having attended a top school has much bearing on candidate quality in the first place (more on that in the section on technical screening below).
Homogeneity of hires
The focus of companies on elite schools has notable, negative implications for the diversity of their applicants. In particular, many schools that companies traditionally visit are notably lacking in diversity, especially when it comes to race and socioeconomic status. According to a survey of computer science students at Stanford, there were just fifteen Hispanic female and fifteen black female computer science majors in the 2015 graduating class total. In this analysis, the Stanford 2015 CS major was 9% Hispanic and 6% black. According to a 2015 analysis, the Harvard CS major was just 3% black and 5 percent Hispanic. Companies that are diversity-forward and constrained to recruiting at the same few schools end up competing over this small pool of diverse students. Meanwhile, there is an entire ocean of qualified, racially diverse students from less traditional backgrounds whom companies are overlooking.
The focus on elite schools also has meaningful implications on socioeconomic diversity. According to a detailed New York Times infographic, “four in 10 students from the top 0.1 percent attend an Ivy League or elite university, roughly equivalent to the share of students from poor families who attend any two- or four-year college.” The infographic highlights the rigid segmentation of students by class background in college matriculation.
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