Saturday, September 8, 2007

Extracurricular Merit

I've always wondered why 'society' has a preference for certain after-school activities. This really first jumped to my attention when applying to MUN, noticing that I didn't qualify for many (most?) scholarships because I didn't volunteer my free time, participate in the right activities, or have demonstrable leadership qualities.

Okay, while these sound all well and good, the point of merit-based scholarships is to attract students to a school that will do a university credit. Is the student who scores mid-80's in high school, plays the saxophone, and volunteers at the SPCA really likely to do much more for the institution than the introverted physics nerd with the same grades?

Maybe this is just me whining about how I didn't get as much money as I would like four years ago (I can't believe I'm in my last year of undergrad) - but to a certain extent I just don't comprehend why volunteering earns more points than say video games, or why a team sport is worth more than running.

It's funny that in so many places, we've moved beyond judging people for their preferences. Now, I'm not comparing scholarship committees to segregationist America, but sometimes it's difficult for my mind to make a large distinction.

Hopefully, there's an economic rationale at work. I've even briefly poked through the literature, but I haven't seen anything on analyzing the returns to scholarship money, let alone breaking those returns down by personal characteristics. Maybe there is a secret pool of institutional knowledge that explains this, but I'm pretty sure it's just a blind preference based on what feels good.

WAFF has never been something I've enjoyed.


Stephen Gordon said...

I've never understood this, either. I was once on a scholarship committee, and there were two candidates at the top of the list. One had done a lot of traveling, lots of extra-curricular activities, blah, blah, blah. The other was from a small town, and had done nothing more interesting than work as a cashier at a factory cafeteria.

During the interviews, the first candidate was charming and well-spoken. The second was reserved and serious - but she was the only candidate to take the time to look at the curriculum of the program to which they were applying, and to think about which courses she'd like to take, and which professors she'd like to talk to.

When it came to crunch time, the person representing the granting agency was all for the first candidate: she would have made great copy for a paragraph in their newsletter. But I dug in my heels: the only thing she really had going for her was having had the opportunity to lead an interesting life. The other candidate was far more likely to really profit from the scholarship. And I'm pleased to report that my view won the day that time. But I get the feeling that this doesn't happen often enough.

Andrew said...

Nod, I've heard of a few struggles of this sort, since I have professors dotting the family tree (though none in economics!)

I suppose it's inevitable as long as scholarship committee's interests aren't exactly aligned with those of the applicants. Not sure how this can possibly be remedied, though.