Berkeley Sociology paper shows the difficulty in landing a job for college grads with criminal records

Michael Cerda-Jara, UC Berkeley Sociology alumnus

David J. Harding, Berkeley Sociology Chair

April 11, 2024

In today’s job market, a college degree is often seen as a pathway to success, promising greater opportunities and higher chances of employment. But for individuals with a criminal record, the reality can be starkly different. 

UC Berkeley Sociology alumnus Michael Cerda-Jara explores the challenges formerly incarcerated individuals face while seeking employment in a study published in Sociological Science titled "Criminal Record Stigma in the Labor Market for College Graduates: A Mixed Methods Study. In collaboration with Berkeley Sociology Chair David Harding, their research sheds light on the challenges faced by those with college degrees and a criminal record during the job application process.

The study involved sending out 1,800 job applications across California's biggest cities to see if employers would respond differently based on whether an applicant mentioned a criminal record and when it occurred relative to their college graduation. The researchers hypothesized that if someone went to college after their conviction, perhaps employers might overlook their past. But they discovered that having a criminal record generally meant fewer job interview calls, particularly for Black and Latino applicants, as compared to White applicants. This was true no matter when they got their college degrees.

The study also included in-depth interviews with people with a criminal record who have a college degree. Those findings showed that those with criminal records who managed to get jobs often ended up in positions related to prison reform or nonprofit work – not an abundance of employment choices that college grads hope for, Cerda-Jara said. One of the most surprising findings, he said, is that using degrees from prestigious universities on applications did not improve a formerly incarcerated individual’s chances of gaining employment. This raises important questions about systemic biases, Cerda-Jara said.

"When we saw the numbers, we were blown away. We sent out all these applications, thinking maybe, just maybe, a college degree after a conviction could level the playing field. But the data showed otherwise,” Cerda-Jara said. “It was a gut punch, especially seeing how it hit Black and Latino applicants the hardest. It's clear we've got some serious work to do in dismantling these barriers." 

Professor Harding added: "The findings really caught us off guard. We were hoping to see some positive outcomes, especially for those who worked hard to earn their degrees after a rough patch. But the reality was starkly different. It's like the system just wasn't budging. This research definitely highlights the urgent need for change in how we approach hiring practices."

The inspiration for this research stemmed from Cerda-Jara’s personal connection to the issue. He is a formerly incarcerated East Bay Area gang member, who decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in sociology because he believed it was a great way to get a job.  

But during his time at UC Berkeley, Cerda-Jara was assigned to read the book, The Mark of a Criminal Record by Devah Pager, which revealed how a criminal record can significantly reduce employability. It made him wonder whether a college degree would override the stigma associated with a conviction history, Cerda-Jara said. This realization prompted profound questions about the value of a college degree for formerly incarcerated people and led him to eventually conduct this study.

Looking ahead, Cerda-Jara hopes this study will serve as a catalyst for change. He said that by exposing the hurdles faced by formerly incarcerated individuals in the job market, he hopes to spur proactive responses from policymakers and employers. Ultimately, he aspires to break down the barriers of stigma and create a more equitable society for formerly incarcerated individuals through his research. 

“I hope our research sparks meaningful conversations and drives positive change,” said Cerda-Jara, who is now pursuing his Ph.D. in sociology at Stanford University. “If our work can impact even one person's life, as UC Santa Barbara Sociology Professor Victor Rios’ inspiring story from incarceration to professor did for me during my community college years, then it is all worth it. By humanizing the narratives of those with criminal records and challenging societal perceptions, we can foster a more inclusive and compassionate society for all.”