Increasing Barriers to College Attendance Through ‘Optional’ Extracurriculars

Opportunities to access higher education in the United States are dwindling, with what effectively amounts to a war on poor students who might want to go to college. Those who are able to access information about how and where to apply, who get the support they need to pull applications together, face an increasing series of hoops to jump through to get into college. If accepted, they face skyrocketing tuition costs, even at supposedly public schools established to make education accessible to all, where the cost of attendance has risen so dramatically, and without accompanying financial support, that talented students who do manage to get in may not be able to go.

It is in the extracurricular activities where poor students are really at a disadvantage. Participation in activities outside of school may be difficult when you’re working to help out your family, having to return home right after school to take care of younger siblings, or living in an area where these options aren’t really offered. Meanwhile, upper class students are raising the stakes in rather dramatic ways. How are you supposed to compete with someone who can list scores of activities during the school year, backed with summer-long events, many of which are extremely costly?

‘Volunteer’ opportunities for wealthy high school students include international travel, for instance, which is costly in the extreme, but it sure looks great on an application to be able to say that you spent a summer teaching or building houses abroad. Likewise, upper class students can afford extremely costly specialised courses, like a summer sailing abroad for thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands, of dollars. These students are already taking costly extracurriculars during the school year, taking advantage of options offered by their schools as well as private courses, some of which can be pricey indeed; not just the cost of the class itself, but the barriers to entry in terms of supplies and the base knowledge students need to have. Horseback riding, for example, is expensive, even if you’re renting a lesson horse rather than maintaining a mount.

This creates an unfair advantage that is difficult to erase. Many colleges and universities have an interest in service, and want students with a record of community service and a clear interest in offering service. Upper class students can afford to do this; they have the time after school and in the summers to participate in service programmes, they have the money to spend on programmes that require financial participation like overseas volunteer opportunities. They can present themselves as models of the school’s ethic, even tailoring the kinds of activities they engage in to specific kinds of schools. If a target school has a deep interest in environmental issues, for instance, students can get involved with environmental opportunities.

Meanwhile, other applicants don’t have this choice, or they don’t participate in the kind of service you can put on a college application. A high school student who helps out members of the community by watching children or picking up groceries or driving someone to Church on Sundays or engaging in other acts of community support has nothing concrete to put on an application, unless it’s done through a service organisation, which is not necessarily the case. That student certainly can’t list flashy volunteer activities as an evidence of commitment to service and building a better world.

Colleges say that they don’t weight extracurriculars heavily, but obviously they do; they ask for that information for a reason and they clearly judge applicants on the information they provide. Even in admissions programmes that do attempt some weighting to address social and class disparities, inevitably, there’s going to be a tendency to prefer the application from the student with advanced placement classes, volunteerism, and ample extracurriculars. That student is considered ‘better prepared’ and more fitting with the mission of the school, particularly for elite private colleges and universities, which want to cultivate a particular kind of student body.

This is a difficult problem to tackle. Inclusion of information about what students do outside their academic lives can provide context, and more information about an applicant. Removing listings of extracurriculars is not a good solution because it strips students of context. Limiting the number listed could be a step, as students with an array to choose from would have to be selective, but this might result in listing the most prestigious only, and only reinforcing the huge gap between students with few or no extracurriculars, and those with ample examples to fan out.

Opening access in these programs through scholarships and outreach seems like a good solution, and some people have promoted this; some elite summer programs, for example, do include scholarship and work-study students. But the problem here, again, is that lower class students may not have the available time in their budgets to participate. They cannot take advantage of opportunities even when they are available because they have other commitments, which, again, cannot be listed on a college application. Carving out the time to participate in such programs simply isn’t an option for everyone.

The stakes keep rising as the barriers get more intense, and there is no clear way around it. Colleges could attempt to set up better methods for weighing extracurriculars less aggressively. Some are already doing this, with application programs that do attempt to balance the differences between applications by considering class issues that might make it hard for some students to take advanced courses, perform well on standardized tests, participate in extracurricular activities. But, as applications from upper class students get flashier and flashier, complete with assistance from expensive consultants who tailor the perfect application, lower class students are left increasingly in the dust, and some may not bother to apply at all; why should they, when the deck is so obviously stacked against them?