David R. Henderson  

Why Do College Admissions Offices Value Volunteer Work?

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Mark Barbieri, a regular reader of this blog, asked the following question and gave me permission to use his name.

He wrote:

Dr. Henderson,

My oldest son is a junior in high school and is getting serious about the college admissions process. One thing that surprised me was the importance colleges seem to place on "volunteer" activities. I'm curious as to whether economics programs have this same bias for unpaid work over paid work.

It seems to me that when a student does paid work, we know that he's adding value for someone. When he does volunteer work, he might be, but he might also be totally wasting his time.

It reminds me of my stint with Habitat for Humanity a few years ago. I had just finished a grueling day working in the hot Texas sun on a house when I thought about just how stupid what I was doing was. I hated construction work. I like my office job. For the amount of work I did for HfH, I could have earned a great deal of money if I'd spent the time working on data systems in an office. Instead, I did construction work that the market would have valued at 1/10th that amount (partly because construction work pays much less but mostly because I was inept at it). Everyone would have been much better off if I'd spent a little more time at the office and used the money to hire a construction worker to take my place.

So I'm curious: why do colleges seem to consider volunteer work more important than paid employment?

Mark asks the question very well. I think the main reason college admissions people tend to value volunteer work is that those jobs in college admissions tend to attract people who are pro non-profit organizations and against for-profit organizations. They often see profits as gains of some at the expense of others, which means they don't understand the basics of gains from exchange.

I don't know whether economics programs have this same bias, but even if they don't, my guess is that most economics department faculty have almost no clue about what the admissions offices are doing.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (23 to date)
Trevor H writes:

My speculation is that inside the big data analytics they have of applications, students and alumni going back decades that admissions offices have concluded that prospects that volunteer more tend to become alumni that donate more.

Matthias Görgens writes:

Tends to keep out the 'riff-raff': only rich people can afford to work for free.

Wasn't the 'holistic' process of admission originally made up to keep out the Jews in the 1930s? And these days to keep out the Asians?

Justin writes:

It's also a good way to select people with the prosocial traits needed to create effective institutions, such as by minimizing agency costs.

blink writes:

The points raised about efficient altruism are accurate, but the real point of these activities is not to benefit the recipients. Instead, the social experience is foremost. This is why substituting a skilled craftsman for one's own labor does not suffice.

I would think of volunteer work as similar to participation in team sports, which admissions officers continue to value: Participation signals a general sociability and ability to collaborate with others to achieve a common goal. My view predicts that admissions officers will value social projects like Habitat for Humanity more highly than volunteer work that provides greater benefits to the recipients but is performed in solitude.

Sam writes:

This question would be more relevant to ask in a country like the UK where undergraduates are admitted to a particular degree program, rather than deciding upon a major only after entering college.

Matthew Moore writes:

I did a couple of years of econ admissions at one of the Oxford colleges, and I can honestly say we looked only at academic aptitude.

Thaomas writes:


I think you may be over interpreting, seeing an anti-capitalist bias where perhaps none exists. I can think of several considerations, but have no first hand insight. First, not all teens can find paid work and those with family connections may have an easier time than those without, so that paid work might favor the relatively affluent. On the other hand, minimum wage work may show nothing but need and that is presumably already counted in the decision. Some kinds of volunteer work may be more open-ended with opportunities to demonstrate some skill or aptitude. Of course some kind of volunteer work can also be highly family income related. Volunteering in the office of a charity in Central America may only show that the parents can afford the cost of the transportation, room and board. In any case, I'd think the most important thing would be what the applicant says about the experience. What case does she make that the work was valuable to her whether remunerated or not.

Aaron W writes:

The simplest explanation in my mind is that volunteer work demonstrates a pro-social attitude. In most work places now, soft skills like teamwork, communication, etc. are highly valued, in some cases more than raw technical skill. The ideal candidate would have both, of course.

I have personally volunteered for several years teaching community college courses in California state prison. I'd say I learned a lot about team work since I worked on a team of 3 instructors since most people only commit to teach one night a week. Communication among the team members was key since we could not bring in cell phones so we had to make sure we knew what happened in the last class, etc. beforehand. In addition to that, teaching to people who did not receive a great (if any meaningful) education in the first place requires you to really be a good communicator in the class room. Finally, I think it made me a more well rounded, empathetic person, since I learned about the experiences of people that I only heard about. That last bit was especially important, since I grew up in a somewhat well-to-do family, so I was kind of clueless of the terrible experiences some people have growing up.

In terms of a mutually beneficial exchange, I think maybe I did not receive any kind of monetary benefit from my volunteer work, but I certainly grew a lot as a person from doing that work. Maybe Habitat for Humanity just wasn't the right kind of volunteer work for Mark? I'd suggest he keep an open mind, and maybe try something different.

George J. Georganas writes:

Did working in a construction site not give the volunteer some appreciation of the kind of job some people end up having to do to earn a living ? It certainly looks like useful motivation to do well in college, if only to avoid having to go back to construction. Plus, you know what to expect, if you end up in a management position supervising construction projects. So, yes, I am surprised to find myself agreeing with the admissions officers on this one.

Greg G writes:

I don't think that highly valuing volunteer work necessarily indicates any hostility to capitalism. There might well be hostility to capitalism on many campuses but respect for volunteer work is no measure of it.

I've done a lot of volunteering with several non-profits and in almost every case our best volunteers were successful capitalists.

Hana writes:

I have a child graduating from HS later this month. She has told me that most of the students in her class ticked boxes in preparation for applying to schools. I understood that to mean they participated in activities solely for the purpose of improving their likelihood of acceptance in to elite programs.

If gaming the system in this way is known to students, and if they exploit it, then 'volunteer work' implies very little about the social virtues of the students (hypocrisy?). I have a hard time seeing more socialization value in having volunteered for work, as opposed to finding, and keeping, a part time job. There probably is a bias in admissions.

David R. Henderson writes:

To commenters above,
Unusually good comments. Thank you. I’ll remember in the future to occasionally ask questions, such as the above, to which I have loose priors about the answer.

Crystal Reed writes:

In my experience (I'm a college counselor for high school students, not an admissions officer), admissions offices don't value unpaid work over paid work. What they're looking for is for the young person to have been out in the world productively, away from the safety structures of family and K-12 education. Since it is not always viable for a teenager to get a paid job (either due to scarcity of jobs or the inflexibility of their schedules), that experience often takes the shape of volunteer work. All of the admissions officers I've spoken to are equally, if not more, impressed by a student who has held down a job in addition to maintaining a good GPA, etc. It's just that they realize this is not always an option so they accept volunteer work as demonstrating the same qualities they'd like in a candidate (autonomy, ability to work with others, perseverance, ambition...you get the idea).

JFA writes:

Mark writes: "I could have earned a great deal of money if I'd spent the time working on data systems in an office." Here's a question I've had about the opportunity cost of volunteering (or any activity for which we try to get an accurate measure of cost): could Mark have actually earned money working on data systems in the time he spent with HfH? Perhaps he could have if he is not salaried and the offices he would be working in are open on Saturday (which I assume is when he was working in the hot Texas sun). To make this not Mark-specific, unless you are paid hourly or receive some bonus for billable hours (in which case, you would have to factor in the uncertainty about those hours' marginal impact on your bonus if the bonus is not determined by formula) and were actually scheduled to work (or could have worked it out so that you were working rather than volunteering) then the opportunity cost of volunteering cannot be measured by the money you would have made from working during the time you volunteered. For a salaried worker, this is not a relevant factor in the choice to volunteer or not.

Arthur writes:

Class signalling. People who volunteer tend to be:

1. In possession of enough disposable income to be at least middle class.

2. Conformist enough to "play the game" of admissions.

Both qualities are highly desirable to colleges.

pyroseed13 writes:

@Arthur and Hana

This is what I find interesting about some of the responses in the comments. Students mainly participate in volunteer work because colleges want them to do so. The admissions committee knows this, so it can't be the case that doing volunteer work reveals something about the personalities and attitudes of college applicants. Rather, it shows these students are willing to jump through whatever hoops they need to in order to get into an elite school.

Glen writes:

First, we are looking at a tie-breaker as opposed to a primary qualifier. Second, this is a signal. A prospective student willing to run an obstacle course of stuff that has little to do with actual academic ability is likely the one who will give off signals of compliance and submission that prospective high-end employers are really looking for.

RPLong writes:

Matthias makes a good point above, but I think there is also a flip-side to that. By introducing something subjective, like volunteer activity, admissions offices enable themselves to make more subjective admissions decisions while still being able to justify it somehow. Sure, Student A has amazing grades and a published paper already; but Student B seems more "well-rounded" thanks to doing that such-and-such volunteer activity.

These decisions can be bent in favor of certain biases while still maintaining appearances. Colleges can favor religious students if their "volunteer work" was faith-based. Colleges can favor affluent students if their volunteer work was overseas. Colleges can favor cultural homogeneity by choosing a local student with lackluster grades but some "volunteer work" over a foreign straight-A student.

And if anyone questions the decision, it can always come down to something that looks like a reasonable admissions rule.

A.B.Aftoora writes:

All of the commenters have provided very interesting theories. Unfortunately, Ms. Crystal Reed had the audacity insert an actual fact.

Kevin Gutzman writes:

In my neck of the woods (southwestern Connecticut), 60 "community service" hours are required for high school graduation. I see this requirement as yet another way Baby Boomers are exploiting the young. In the old days, government or non - profits would have hired people to perform these tasks.

What does having 60 hours of "volunteer" work on one's resume prove? That he's from a New York exurb.

jseliger writes:

I do grant writing for nonprofit and public agencies, so I get to learn a lot about the "behind the scenes" in those sectors. Most nonprofit and public agencies don't actually like volunteers very much because volunteers aren't very effective, motivated, or skilled (or skilled in the tasks that need to be done). That's why most volunteering is actually a waste of time: http://jakeseliger.com/2014/06/19/most-volunteering-is-a-waste-of-time-for-anyone-except-the-volunteer , except to the extent it provides good feelings for the volunteer.

This is not a popular view among my friends, however.

Steve B. writes:

Couple of observations"

1) Research shows that unpaid internship work on a resume seems to have as much value in finding a job as the intern was paid.

2) Econ programs often get to admit graduate students, but undergraduate admissions are usually controlled by the university.

George J. Georganas writes:

A true story of volunteer work in the merry times of socialist Eastern Europe. A group of youths from the Communist Youth Organisation of (nominally capitalist) Greece shows up in a road construction site in socialist Bulgaria to do its bit in advancing socialism. The supervisor hands them picks, spades and wheelbarrows and has them move a pile of sand to the other side of the road. After their shift is over, the supervisor orders a backhoe to move the sand back to where it was in the first place. Of course, the young comrades start protesting. The supervisor, though, disarms them at once : There is a delegation from socialist Cuba coming tomorrow and I need to have work for them to do, too !

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