Griggs is a senior at Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics high school. When she’s not babysitting, she’s working 20 hours a week at Modell’s Sporting Goods in Brooklyn. She’s also taking Advanced Placement classes and applying to 14 colleges. On weekdays, she’s up by 5 a.m. to get from her Bronx apartment to her first class at 7:30. On the two weekdays she works at the sports store, she doesn’t get home until 10:30 or 11 at night — when she settles in for another hour or two of homework. She gets to bed after midnight and starts over about five hours later.
Half her paycheck goes toward college savings. Her mother works in customer service at a taxi company and would help with college costs, but Griggs doesn’t want to put that obligation on her. “I want to provide for myself. Even though my family helps me, I don’t want to be a burden,” she said. She’ll be the first in her immediate family to go to college.
Griggs’s work history and family commitments might seem like key selling points for colleges that say they value grit, time management skills and maturity. But many college applications don’t give much space to that kind of experience. Admissions officers at top schools tend to value community service — the sort of activities that students from low-income families may not have, given their devotion to helping their families and finding ways to save for college.
That’s a matter of fairness, said Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer with Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. It’s not just that working-class students can’t go to Costa Rica to volunteer.
“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” — but too often colleges don’t recognize that, Weissbourd said.
In 2016, Weissbourd was lead author on a report calling on colleges to broaden their definition of community service. There’s evidence that colleges are beginning to get the message: In October, the Common Application, which is used by about 900 colleges, said students can list “family responsibilities” in the “activities” section. But education experts say colleges still have a long way to go.
For students from low-income families, graduating from college is an important way to climb the economic ladder. They especially benefit from getting into competitive schools, the sort of institutions where admissions officers carefully weigh each piece of a student’s application. But while selective universities say they want more students from low-income families, they still disproportionately enroll young people from affluent families. Children from families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution are 77 times as likely to attend an Ivy League college than those whose families are in the bottom 20 percent.
In a 2017 survey of about 240 college admissions leaders, more than half said that when they’re looking at applications, community service experience serves as a tiebreaker in choosing whom to admit. More than two-thirds of the admissions officials said community service shows the student is likely to be active in social life outside class, contribute to the school’s mission and share the school’s values.
This emphasis on community service can leave students from less affluent families facing the difficult decision of whether to give up opportunities to earn much-needed money so they can burnish their college applications.
From age 10, Fiza Shaikh spent many hours after school and on weekends helping run the San Francisco hotel managed by her parents, immigrants from Pakistan. From an even younger age, she regularly joined them on errands to interpret.
But she didn’t feel any of that would help her get into college. “I knew that I didn’t have anything to put on [applications],” Shaikh said. “If I just put on that I was helping my parents work, it wouldn’t look good.” So in her junior year in high school, she cut back on work at the hotel to join student government and volunteer at a hospital and with two community programs. Now, 17 and a high school senior, Shaikh is putting her volunteer work on her college applications.
Some schools say they’re committed to changing what they look for. In March 2019, Weissbourd and his colleagues released a second report on improving the college admissions process. It notes that 140 college admissions deans have signed a letter pledging 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.”
Weissbourd continues to work with the Common Application group on changes. A clarification in the frequently-asked-questions section on “family responsibilities” informs applicants that what they include there is confidential — important for students caring for a parent with a drug or alcohol problem, for example, Weissbourd said.
Still, the Common App’s “activities” section gives students 150 characters — just over half a tweet — to describe their contributions outside school. And despite the deans’ letter, no hard data indicates how many schools are paying attention to the issue, Weissbourd said. “A lot of colleges out there aren’t doing anything around this, and I don’t think it’s fair,” he said.
Weissbourd and the other report authors talked with high school leaders and counselors to get their responses to the deans’ letter. Though many were enthusiastic, others said they didn’t believe colleges would change their practices.
Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Tech, said his school already has. About two years ago, the university added two essay questions designed to capture nontraditional contributions: One asks applicants about the role they play in their families; the other asks them to describe a typical day. Some students’ answers to that second question say little of interest, perhaps noting what they eat for breakfast. But others mention they make breakfast for all of their siblings, which says a lot about how much they’re relied on, Clark said.
His staff has also changed what they look for in reviewing applications, he said. Five years ago, the buzzwords were “well-rounded” and “leadership.” Now, they’re looking for the students whom their families and communities depend upon — not just the baseball team captain or club president but the older sibling who is taking care of younger family members.
More students might highlight their nontraditional contributions if they had a counselor to guide them. But counseling support is often scant: School counselors serve, on average, 482 students each. Griggs got extra support through a program called Bottom Line, which she applied to her junior year. It pairs college counselors with first-generation applicants and those from low-income families. Griggs had completed a résumé in an English class, and her Bottom Line adviser, Kamala Moore, told her to attach that to her applications. Moore said they captured Griggs’s babysitting time in the Common App by describing her as a “caregiver.”
The 14 schools Griggs has applied to are all in-state — a mix of public and private colleges. She wants to major in education, in part because a sixth-grade English teacher inspired her to go to college. In applying, she wrote three separate essays, producing multiple drafts of each to respond to comments from Moore and one of her English teachers, then picking the best of the three.
She also had to follow up with admissions offices to find out if they were missing anything, which meant staying on top of teachers and counselors about sending in recommendations, test scores and transcripts. Now, she’s in the middle of the financial aid application process, another exercise in assembling documents, although she’s getting help from Moore. She plans to start visiting colleges this month.
“Some [colleges] already contacted me for interviews, so that’s good,” she said.
This story about college applications was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.