Volunteerism expectations a little-noticed admissions hurdle for low-income students

Admissions officers have long valued community service in judging a student’s college application. In a 2017 survey of college admissions leaders, more than half said that “community service experience serves as a tiebreaker in choosing whom to admit,” largely because admissions officers see it as a signal that the student is likely to further the school’s mission and be socially active, according to The Hechinger Report. However, those expectations for volunteerism can present a barrier for low-income students, whose family responsibilities and work obligations may leave them little time for other activities.

What counts as ‘community service’?

For the past few years, experts like Richard Weissbourd have pushed colleges to broaden what they consider to be “community service.” “If you are working 20 hours [a week] on a family farm or taking care of a sibling 20 hours a week or a sick relative, and you’re getting to school and you’re getting B’s and C’s, that’s really impressive,” Weissbourd, a senior lecturer with Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, told The Hechinger Report.

As the lead author of a 2016 report on “inspiring concern for others and the common good through college admissions,” Weissbourd—along with a broad coalition of admissions offices—called on colleges to help level the playing field for economically disadvantaged students by valuing the contributions students make to provide for their families, such as working an extra job to boost household income, or taking care of a sick family member. Doing so also could help free low-income students from “the difficult decision of whether to give up opportunities to earn much-needed money so they can burnish their college applications,” writes The Hechinger Report.

Adjusting the Common App, committing to a broader definition

Weissbourd also is collaborating with the group that oversees the Common Application, which in October 2019, said it would allow students to list family responsibilities in the activities section. In addition, Common App now explains that information about family responsibilities will be kept confidential, enabling students to feel more comfortable discussing difficulties at home. Counselors also play a crucial role in encouraging students to include “nontraditional contributions” on their college applications.

Weissbourd and fellow advocates appear to be making inroads, though there is still far to go. In March 2019, 140 college admissions deans signed a letter stating that “family commitments and obligations, such as taking care of a younger sibling or working at a job to contribute income to the family, are highly valued by our admission staff and will be considered in admissions decisions.”

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