When it comes to college degree attainment and pay parity in the workforce, women have made significant progress. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the proportion of women in the workforce with a college degree has quadrupled since 1970. Moreover, whereas women earned 62% of what men did in 1979, that number has jumped to 82% today.

While there is certainly progress, there is obviously still plenty of work that needs to be done. Working in the technology sector as a woman, I am regularly reminded about the gender gap in the industry, especially when it comes to the talent pipeline.

For instance, in 2018, according to data from the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, only 20% of bachelor’s degrees in computer science were awarded to women, down from 27% in 1998. The numbers are even starker if you look at minority women. In 2018, of all the computer science degrees awarded, approximately four percent went to Black and Hispanic women.

This is worrisome. Many of the fastest growing and best paying jobs are in these fields. Comb through Indeed’s list of the 100 highest paying jobs and you’ll find titles such as software architect, data warehouse architect, cloud engineer, data scientist, and full stack developer all within the top 40.

There are other adverse implications to this. The more homogeneous a workforce, the greater the risk of hiring or affinity biases. Another example is the growing pervasiveness of artificial intelligence (AI) in our professional and personal lives. It’s imperative that these programs are being developed in a way that accurately reflects the diversity of humanity. The consequences could be disastrous otherwise.

The Market Gap in Education

As an executive leader at a major technology company whose father was the first in his family to graduate from college while simultaneously working full-time, I often ask myself what steps are being done to tackle the problem of college degree attainment and pay parity in the workforce. Working at an organization that fully embraces diversity, and seeing the inherent value that it brings, has only bolstered my resolve on this topic.

I was very fortunate to end up where I have. My parents sacrificed a lot so that my brother and I could have access to the best education. Higher education has opened so many doors in my life, and I will be forever grateful for that. Not everyone has these same opportunities, though.

There remains a huge market gap in support for low-income students throughout their educational journey. Countless numbers of students run into roadblocks trying to finish their education. While there is a plethora of programs available to help students gain admission to college, there are not enough available to help them finish college.

The Last Mile Education Fund

This is where the Last Mile Education Fund — an organization we’re proud to be supporting with a $500,000 donation over the next two years — comes in. The solutions Last Mile brings to the problem are original and effective.

Ruthe Farmer is the founder and CEO of Last Mile and brings more than two decades of experience and expertise to this topic. (She is also an absolute pleasure to listen to.) Before founding Last Mile, Farmer was Senior Policy Advisor for Tech Inclusion at the White House Office of Science and Technology policy under the Obama administration and served as chief evangelist at CSforAll, among other distinctions.

As Farmer explained to me, through a disruptive approach, Last Mile is focused on getting low-income women and students not into college, but through college to graduation.

“Everyone was so focused on getting students into college, but no one was making sure low-income talent was getting out,” said Farmer, discussing how the organization was founded. “I saw students struggling over trivial things, like trying to commute to an internship or checking into a hotel.”

Last Mile’s mandate is to invest in degree completion for striving, low-income, technical women. Farmer very intentionally uses the word investing. As she put it, “I don’t think this is charity. I view this more as venture capital, because the ROI is more talent into the tech workforce, with these graduates earning $47,000 more on average in six to 12 months compared to having some college but no degree.”

Last Mile provides three categories of funding for post-secondary students, from under-$600 emergency grants all the way through the largest investment, which covers up to $10,000 for things like tuition or living expenses for their final term. Last Mile’s investments are somewhat atypical too, allowing coverage for things like car repairs, family obligations, or medical expenses.

“They are solving problems that are urgent and can make or break a student,” said Katie Booth, head of SAP North America Corporate Social Responsibility. “The students who are being invested in are incredibly motivated. They are on track to graduate in the most challenging majors out there. One of the reasons we’re supporting Last Mile is that so many students are 90% of the way there. We want to see them finish college.”

What Success Looks Like

In one success story, a student who was valedictorian of her high school received scholarships for college, but still had a gap in tuition coverage. To make ends meet, she was working three jobs. When the pandemic hit, she reached out to Last Mile, explaining that she was $5,000 short for her tuition, which was preventing her from registering for her final semester and putting her at risk of graduating on time. Also at risk was the career-launching job she had waiting for her.

Last Mile stepped in to help. As a result, this student graduated on time and was able to start her career. This $5,000 “made a huge difference in her life,” said Farmer. “I imagine there are thousands of students for whom the pandemic completely derailed their educational paths and futures.”

Last Mile’s mentality is nicely summed up by Farmer: “Money in means students out.”

Farmer cited another example of a student walking a financial tightrope, juggling three jobs as well as school, who suffered a setback when her car broke down and she needed a new transmission — something that would set her back $3,000. Last Mile stepped in, and even went beyond, helping to pay her rent. This person was able to recently graduate and start at a major technology company. What’s more, she started to invest back into Last Mile just four months after graduating — another vision of the organization as its alumni go on to succeed in tech.

The Vision

The ultimate ambition for Last Mile is to hit $60 million in funding. With this, it estimates it can positively impact the lives of 23,000 students, yielding $2.15 billion in wages for low-income women by 2031.

As of now, the organization has commitments of $17 million, and that has already allowed it to do some amazing work. Examples include many stories like the ones shared above, but also doing things like paying off the student debt for tech graduates, as was recently shared here.

“The sunk cost from low-income students not finishing college is so great, as much as $475,000 per student. Why not spend an extra $5,000? If they don’t finish, it’s like lighting money on fire. If they do, they pay taxes, they contribute to diversity of thought, they can pay their student debt. If they don’t graduate, we all lose,” said Farmer.

“The long-term plan is working with companies of all sizes as a recruiting play. What will endear you to students more: a water bottle at a career fair or the fact that you stepped up to pay their rent or other expenses during their critical senior year?”

With our donation, we’re thrilled to be contributing to an organization so dedicated to closing this market gap, as well as the gender and socioeconomic gap it has helped manifest in the technology industry. Only around 20% of students from the bottom two income quartiles earn a degree within six years of starting college. Last Mile sees that 80% as a high ROI opportunity to increase diversity in tech.

To date Last Mile has provided over 1,400 grants to support students who are 39% African American, 24% Hispanic, 18% Asian, 11% White and three percent Native American/Alaskan Native/Pacific Islander.

Learn more or get involved at www.lastmile-ed.org and watch one grantee’s story here:

Anamarie Franc is managing director of SAP Labs in the U.S.