Students Volunteers Are Just as Gifted as Student Athletes … So Where’s The Scholarship Money?

Photo by Austin Kehmeier on Unsplash

A full scholarship is difficult attain, but it’s realistic for the college student who’s athletic, talented, intelligent, diverse, or in need. But never for selflessness … never the student whose gift is for altruism and service. And by “scholarship,” I don’t mean the kindly (yet small) honorariums that come from a society or foundation. I don’t mean stipend-type gifts, the kind that cover books and supplies. I don’t mean the scholarship “process,” not the formulaic weighing of grades plus activities plus service.

What I’m talking about is the holy grail of scholarships. It’s merit-based, but it’s the merit of altruism and heart. It’s talent-based, but it’s the talent for serving others. And it’s full — start to finish, everything paid for by a college — because a student demonstrates a love of community and a love for helping others.

College Volunteering: The Money Game

1Oklahoma was recently formed to help University of Oklahoma athletes earn up to $50,000 annually for their nonprofit efforts. It works like this:

Student-athletes will choose the nonprofits they align with best and will work directly with those charities. They will essentially be compensated for their time and effort [emphasis added] by 1Oklahoma. …. Fans donate to the collective, the collective arranges athletes’ partnership with other nonprofits, athletes do the work, [emphasis added] and the collective pays the athletes. Hoover, J. E. (2022, April 26). Here’s how 1Oklahoma will work with Oklahoma athletes for ‘a win-win-win’. Sports Illustrated

1Oklahoma is similar to other collegiate “collectives” forming around the country, including Tiger Impact (Clemson), Occupy Left Field (University of Texas), and Hoosiers for Good (Indiana). For these collectives, the goal is twofold: 1) take advantage of new NIL rules, and 2) compensate college athletes for giving back. Goals aside, it’s paid volunteerism; it’s compensating college students for their “time,” “effort” and “work” in the community.

Though they exist separate from universities, these collectives demonstrate the “merit” of volunteering. If “merit” is “the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward,” then good or worthy volunteers (regardless of athletic ability) are deserving of reward. The same can be said for “talent” a/k/a “natural aptitude or skill.” A student’s talent for service in the community has no less value* than the same service from a student athlete. Thus, talented volunteers who “do the work” deserve compensation for “their time and effort.”

The Great Lie of Giving Back

The idea that “giving” should have economic value (i.e., thousands of dollars in scholarship money) will repulse some people. Selflessness is inherently sacrificial in terms of mind, body, and soul, time, work, and effort. Giving back, one will argue, is an action born of love and generosity, not of rewards and accolades.

This is the same simplistic argument launched at teachers, that they should be content with low pay because they teach “for the love of” the children. This is not only ridiculous, it’s also condescending … the idea that one’s worth and value should be capped by one’s compassion and heart. It’s also an argument easily applied to college athletes who are always fighting for “more” … more rights, more autonomy, more voice. This “more” quickly becomes “less” when playing “for the love” of the game is the only thing athletes should play for.

Plus, it’s naïve to think that love, kindness, and sacrifice are the sole motives for volunteering. Non-profits (and their executives) are paid (and often paid well) for good works. Yes, it’s compassionate work, community work, and social work, but it’s paid work too. So the idea that altruism should be free — eluding monetary value — simply isn’t true. It’s a great lie, a lie that’s been exposed by the collectives now paying college athletes — and paying them well — for charity work.**

The ”Hidden” Value of Student Volunteers

In a sense, colleges already pay students who volunteer regularly and extensively. High school students pack their resumes with service opportunities, and in return, universities offer a higher value to these students. It’s compensation, not in terms of money but in terms of character. As pointed out by William Deresiewicz in his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life:

Affluent families fashion an entire way of life organized around production of measurable virtue in children. Measurable here means capable of showing up on a college application

If “virtue” (a/k/a goodness, rightness, and integrity) is something measured in a student, then it should be rewarded the same way universities reward other measurables … i.e., grades, scores, talent, speed, etc.

Some will argue that measurable virtue isn’t scholarship-worthy because unlike other measurables, it doesn’t benefit a university. This argument ties the deservedness of a full scholarship to a direct payback … that of brand or profit. Smart students are deserving because they raise academic reputation, do publishable research, and (hopefully) become rich donors. Athletic students are deserving because they create income, increase school pride, and generate publicity.

The problem with this is argument is fourfold:

· First, universities already reap the benefits of volunteering, using it as a tool for recruitment, fundraising, and student life. At OU, students participate in The Big Event, a campus-wide day of community service. Penn State has THON, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, and UCLA’s annual Volunteer Day “has become a cornerstone of the UCLA experience.”

· Second, altruism is already big business in higher education, though it goes by a different name … “development.” For a development department, giving back to one’s alma matter (not unlike one’s community) has immense value. Consequently, universities pour a lot of “time,” “effort” and “work” into this type of giving.

· Third, not every scholarship pays directly back into university profits and reputation. Unlike scholastic/athletic scholarships, minority and 1st-gen scholarships offer value detached from academics and publicity.

· Lastly, and most importantly, student volunteers carry their talents beyond campus, stepping across the academic border and benefitting the community at large. For a college, this is the “social” benefit, the forgotten value in the trinity of profit, brand, and service. Student volunteers are the hands and feet of a university, working for the greater good and generating (for the university) something more than revenue and trophies.

Transforming College Outcomes

So here’s how it might work.

Let’s say a university offers five “volunteer” scholarships (full-rides) per class. These would be rewarded solely on service (and by “service,” I mean real service … not resume stuffing service). Each scholarship would then be renewable and contingent upon volunteer hours or community projects, focusing on outreach, fundraising, and nonprofits. In a way, it would mirror athletics … i.e., the creation of a 20 person “team” (five scholarship volunteers for each graduating class, freshman through seniors) that would be driven by a common goal … not wins and losses but continuous and sustained community involvement.

The obvious goal here is to adequately reward the “merit” and “talent” inherent in giving. A college student who gives greatly should be on equal footing with students who think greatly, create greatly, and win greatly. But it’s not just about rewarding young volunteers; it’s also about fostering the next generation of life-long givers and selfless workers. It’s about changing the narrative that higher education is a pathway to riches and that anything less is failure:

Colleges and universities do nothing to suggest that some ways of using your education are better than others. They do nothing, in other words, to challenge the values of a society that equates dignity, and happiness with material success. Nor do they do much to help kids find their way to alternative careers. On the contrary: I’ve been told again and again, at school after school, that career service offices have little or nothing to say to students who are interested in something other than the big four of law, medicine, finance, and consulting. Deresiewicz, William. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.

*The exception might be for the star athlete. A starting quarterback will have greater fundraising value than a computer science major. But this is for fundraising (i.e., publicity) only. Not so for the physical act of giving back … tending to the poor, serving at a youth center, picking up trash. In the aforementioned cases, star status is irrelevant to creating value in the community. Also, college collectives are indiscriminate; they apply value to all volunteering, from the star to the walk-on. Thus, in athletics, volunteering has value from top to bottom. At the very least, non-athletes who volunteer fit into this figurative “bottom.” Lastly, if star athletes are more valuable and more deserving of compensation, then the same holds true for a university’s star volunteers.

**Another rebuttal might be the “deterrent factor,” which goes something like this: if some students earn a free education for volunteering, resentment will deter non-scholarship students from giving back. But the reverse is just as logical, that when scholarship students volunteer publicly and regularly, non-scholarship students will be motivated to help. Moreover, the deterrent argument can be made for any scholarship. Do scholarships deter non-scholarship singers, writers, runners, and thinkers to do less singing, writing, running, and thinking? Lastly, the genie is already out of the bottle; the deterrent is now in play. College collectives are paying athletes to volunteer so there’s no reason to limit this benefit (or deterrent) to just student athletes.

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Travis Burchart

Social media expert, higher education advocate, writer, Founding Fathers fan, lawyer in a past life