Should Students Get Admission Preferences for Community Service?

A January report called “Making Caring Common” sponsored by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and endorsed by dozens of researchers and enrollment management professionals made headlines for calling on students seeking to attend elite colleges to focus less on college preparatory tests and more on community service while in high school. (The report also called on expanding the definition of what a “good” college is, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Last weekend’s New York Times included an interesting proposal from attorney Steve Cohen in response to this report. He wrote the following:

“The best way for colleges to tell kids they truly value a concern about others and a real commitment to community service is to announce that they’ll give an admissions bump of one standard deviation to anyone who spends two years after high school doing full-time AmeriCorps-type community or military service.”

Essentially, Cohen is calling for an expansion of the ‘gap year’ between high school and college. While this sort of plan has some benefits (such as giving students a chance to mature before beginning their studies and providing potential opportunities to learn more about the world), I am skeptical that a two-year community service program would actually benefit students from lower-income families:

(1) Voluntary gap years are basically just for students from wealthy families. Although research from Sara Goldrick-Rab and Seong Wan Han shows that gap years are far more common for financially-needy students, these gap years are typically so students can transition to adulthood and pay for their education. Community service jobs are unlikely to pay the bills; AmeriCorps, for example, pays their full-time employees about $1,070 per month—far less than a full-time job flipping burgers or making biscuits. Students from wealthier families can rely on their parents to subsidize them while waiting to get into an elite college, while lower-income families may expect their college-age students to help pay the bills.

(2) Delaying enrollment for two years can hurt students when they get to college. A majority of first-time students who enroll in community college already take at least one remedial course while they are in college (remediation data at four-year colleges are tricky because some states and colleges technically do not offer remedial courses). Even among students who took college preparatory coursework, delaying enrollment by two years provides ample opportunity for many of the key math and writing skills to become rusty. This can result either in higher rates of remediation (and delaying the path to a degree) or struggling in the first year of courses (which can result in the loss of financial aid). For example, research by Robert Bozick and Stefanie DeLuca finds that delayed enrollees are less likely to earn a college degree than on-time enrollees, even after controlling for academic preparation and family income.

For these reasons, I highly doubt that giving admissions preferences to students who delay college to do community service will help non-wealthy students. However, I am intrigued by the preference for students with military experience, particularly as most elite colleges enroll few veterans. Research by Amy Lutz shows that young adults from the wealthiest family income quartile are less likely to serve in the military than those from lower-income or middle-income families. Military service also offers a better compensation package than community service, although at greater risk to the individual. These people who are willing to put their lives on the line certainly deserve special consideration in admissions, while young adults who can afford to do community service for two years likely do not.

Author: Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.