The bar to get into many clubs at USC has become dauntingly high — according to executive board members of academic clubs 20, 10, even 5% acceptance rates have become common. Club membership has become far too competitive, which undermines the very purpose of student organizations on campus.
The most obvious downside of hyper-selective clubs is evident in service-oriented clubs. At the core of these organizations is — at least as stated — the quest to help as many people as possible. In the process, however, these clubs end up eliminating a significant portion of their applicant pool. This is absurd. More active members inevitably lead to more resources, more connections, more high-quality ideas and a bigger workforce to solve problems.
Granted, some of these students may not have the expected work ethic, but within that number, there are also a multitude of passionate, interested students, who are turned away by often arbitrary admissions decision. Drastically limiting the number of people who can participate is antithetical to altruistic organizations. In the real world, volunteer organizations are not culling a majority of their possible manpower — service organizations, staffed and run by undergraduates, should not prevent such a large portion of students from helping.
The bigger problem, however, is the selection process itself. Clubs have little regulation when picking members: Undergraduate Student Government is hardly an adequate HR department for USC clubs. Clubs are likely unconsciously perpetuating biases in recruiting, a problem that full-fledged companies and organizations (with extensive oversight) still struggle with. Even innocuous-sounding guidelines can be exclusionary — a club selecting for relevant experience, for example, is likely disproportionately accepting students from privileged backgrounds. For example, a hypothetical engineering club selecting for prior coding experience may exclude women who are historically underrepresented in STEM education. And this doesn’t account for more intentional selection errors, as applicants’ hopes are entirely predicated on decisions made by their peers.
This all raises questions about the ultimate purpose of undergraduate organizations in college.
Clubs are not employers: They exist in a university setting, are staffed by students and do not pay their members. Fundamentally, clubs exist to either equip students with relevant career experience, help the broader community or unite a group of students with similar interests. There’s no reason why any of these goals should be gated by increasingly demanding selection processes.
Some justifications are offered for these cuts. The most selective clubs on campus claim that cuts are needed to maintain a proficient body of students as they are doing important work that requires an educated member base. This is false. Every club, no matter how elite, is made up of students lacking relevant degrees or experience. Taking in an influx of interested, committed students will not impair their abilities in any significant way.
The other common objection is management — too many members means the organization becomes too difficult to manage. This, too, can be solved easily. Clubs should create positions and leadership roles to educate new members and allow them to help in a more limited capacity until they gain enough experience to participate. This is beneficial to everyone: As more students gain experience, organizations get a larger talent pool to draw from and USC produces more experienced graduates. More members will also likely lead to more funds from USG, and more sources for fundraising, allowing clubs to better achieve their goals.
Student organizations in college should be ways that all undergraduates can find and cultivate interests outside of the classroom. They should not be gated by an obscure, counterproductive and intensely restrictive selection processes.