Prerequisites & privilege: Working full-time limits volunteer opportunities for students of color

By Bryan Cambray Cortez


For a student from a lower socioeconomic status, getting into college is not easy. However, getting into college is only the first battle. Getting accepted into a particular major or program can be even more difficult. The prerequisites for undergraduate and graduate programs require a lot more than just competitive grades to be accepted. Most programs expect students to have developed leadership skills, ammassed volunteer hours and held various internships. These prerequisites assume that students are in a position where they can study full time and have plenty of time for these types of various activities. The way the admissions requirements are structured assumes the student either only works part time or not at all. For students from a working class or poor background, working anything less than full time is not an option.
For example, the Bachelor’s of Social Work program in the College of Social Work accepts only 36 students every semester. Social work is the field I am particularly interested in, so I met with one of the program advisors to learn their admissions criteria. My GPA exceeds their minimum standard of 3.5. However, the other expectations, including over 200 volunteer hours pertaining to social work, internships, work study find me at a loss. The program advisor recommended that I get involved in the Bennion Center to start acquiring volunteer hours, since I have little to none accumulated. With a full time job to help pay for school, I did not have any extra hours to devote to volunteering. Nevertheless, she recommended I still needed to find time to volunteer. Because only the top competitive students will be accepted into the Social Work program, my application without those hours will not make the cut. The way these prerequisites are structured cater to a student who does not have financial constraints.
According to a recent report by the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative (, students from the lowest income brackets whose economic mobility would benefit most from pursuing higher education, are finding it ever more difficult to access college. Enrollment and persistence rates of low-income students, African American, Latino, and Native American students lags behind White and Asian students, with Latino students trailing all other ethnic groups. According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, out of every 100 ninth graders from low-income backgrounds, only 40 immediately enter college, but only 18 graduate with any kind of degree.
One of the greatest obstacles comes from the fact that the rising cost of college are impacting lower income familes more than families in upper income brackets. According to the NPEC report, tuition at public institutions increased from 27 percent to 33 percent between 1986 and 1996 for families in the bottom 25 percent, but only from 7 percent to 9 percent for families in the top 25 percetn. Ultimately, the enrollment of students from the lowest income group decreases by almost 2 percent for every $150 tuition increase. Sadly, colleges and universities across the country have increasingly begun to refocus their admissions approach to primarily recruit students who can pay their way. Inadequate finances play a bigger role in the decion to stop attending college than does poor academic performance. The idea that students get accepted and succeed in college soleley based on their merit is a myth, a corrupting myth that continues to disadvantage working class students.
The myth of meritocracy myth is a dominant and pervasive ideology that resonates solidly through the U.S. educational system. Described by Stephen J. McNamee, the meritocracy myth is, “Getting ahead is ostensibly based on individual merit, which is generally viewed as a combination of factors including innate abilities, working hard, having the right attitude, and having high moral character and integrity.” Prerequisites that reward students for volunteerism underscore this myth of meritocracy. For instance, students with a higher economic status, can more easily be involved in extracurricular activities because they do not have to work, or work as much, compared to less economically advantaged students. During my time at the University of Utah, I am one of the few among my classmates that works 40 hours or more. Because I do not have volunteer and internship experiences, I am less competitive student compared to the more privileged students. Many prerequisites, thus, are structured to benefit privileged students, seemingly making them more meritorious.
I am a strong believer one should work hard for the things they want, including their degree. However, working to pay for your living expenses, tuition, and possibly even to support your immediate family, are not seen as meritorious. If some of these critieria accounted for students’ social class and considered the amount of hours they work weekly as exemplifying the type of work ethic, leadership, and lived experience they seek in their top students. Otherwise, meritocracy will remain a myth for working class students who are quite aware that the mantra that hard work leads to succeess, really only recognizes those individuals with economic advantage.