Mark Barbieri, a regular reader of this blog, asked the following question and gave me permission to use his name.

He wrote:

Dr. Henderson,

My oldest son is a junior in high school and is getting serious about the college admissions process. One thing that surprised me was the importance colleges seem to place on “volunteer” activities. I’m curious as to whether economics programs have this same bias for unpaid work over paid work.

It seems to me that when a student does paid work, we know that he’s adding value for someone. When he does volunteer work, he might be, but he might also be totally wasting his time.

It reminds me of my stint with Habitat for Humanity a few years ago. I had just finished a grueling day working in the hot Texas sun on a house when I thought about just how stupid what I was doing was. I hated construction work. I like my office job. For the amount of work I did for HfH, I could have earned a great deal of money if I’d spent the time working on data systems in an office. Instead, I did construction work that the market would have valued at 1/10th that amount (partly because construction work pays much less but mostly because I was inept at it). Everyone would have been much better off if I’d spent a little more time at the office and used the money to hire a construction worker to take my place.

So I’m curious: why do colleges seem to consider volunteer work more important than paid employment?

Mark asks the question very well. I think the main reason college admissions people tend to value volunteer work is that those jobs in college admissions tend to attract people who are pro non-profit organizations and against for-profit organizations. They often see profits as gains of some at the expense of others, which means they don’t understand the basics of gains from exchange.

I don’t know whether economics programs have this same bias, but even if they don’t, my guess is that most economics department faculty have almost no clue about what the admissions offices are doing.