The Activity Gap

Access to after-school programs is growing more unequal, and that's pushing disadvantaged kids further behind.

Imagine two young adults who, despite living in the same city, come from very different worlds.

One is named Ethan—a freshman at an elite college near Austin, Texas, pursuing a degree in engineering. He grew up with supportive middle-class parents who put him in extracurriculars his whole life: Boy Scouts, soccer, track, orchestra. Instead of letting Ethan watch TV and play video games, his dad took him on hiking trips to New Mexico where they would track bears and practice navigation. His father also volunteered as the school orchestra’s bus driver. Ethan’s mom, meanwhile, strived to raise an engaged citizen; she even helped him register to vote when he turned 18.

Then there’s Nicole, who also lives in Austin—though in an area far less inviting than the spacious private housing development where Ethan was raised. At 18, Nicole is a single mother who works in the kitchen at a three-star hotel making a wage that’s hardly enough to cover food, diapers, and clothes from Goodwill. She recently borrowed $9,000 to help pay for a year-long program at a for-profit college, but whether that degree will get results—whether she’ll even complete the course—is debatable.

Unfortunately, it’s hardly surprising that Nicole wound up at this point. She grew up poor—her father worked as a garbage collector, and her mother as a hotel maid and waitress—in a neighborhood that was so dangerous she couldn’t play outside. Instead of hiking trips and and soccer games, Nicole spent her afternoons watching TV at home alone. As a sophomore in high school, after spending her freshman year popping pills with other girls to fit in, Nicole joined the dance team. But that was short-lived: With uniforms and travel for competitions costing $800 annually, she had to quit after a year because her family couldn’t afford it. She eventually wound up pregnant by a man who later became abusive.

Though their names are pseudonyms, Ethan and Nicole are real people who were interviewed as part of a national study recently featured in Voices in Urban Education, a publication out of Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform. The objective of the study was to examine trends in extracurricular participation among kids in the U.S. from the 1970s until today through long-term data and conversations with 120 young adults across the country.

What the researchers found is, as they note in the article, "alarming." Income-based differences in extracurricular participation are on the rise, and these differences greatly affect later outcomes. This disparity exacerbates the already-growing income achievement gap that has kept poor children behind in school and later in life. While upper- and middle-class students have become more active in school clubs and sports teams over the past four decades, their working-class peers "have become increasingly disengaged and disconnected," particularly since their participation rates started plummeting in the '90s, the study found.

"Ethan is lucky: with his parents’ flexible work schedules, comfortable financial situation, and commitment to his social and intellectual development, his pathway into a middle-class adult life was almost seamless," the researchers write. "But for many other children, the rising costs of sport teams and school clubs, combined with parents’ uncertain work schedules and precarious household budgets, have made extracurricular activities a luxury they can’t afford."

The researchers consulted surveys from the National Center for Education Statistics dating back to the early '70s. These surveys asked for information from students, parents, and administrators on various aspects of the education experience, including involvement in several types of school-sponsored activities, such as service and hobby clubs, drama programs, and sports teams. They measured gaps by comparing participation among students in the top and bottom quartiles of a socioeconomic index. And it’s worth noting that they limited their analysis to "non-Hispanic white" high school seniors to emphasize that "the gaps we find are driven by social class and not by race or ethnicity."

While there’s always been a gap in access to extracurriculars, participation numbers for the two groups increased at about the same rate until they started to diverge precipitously—in the early 1980s for non-athletic activities and in the early 1990s for sports teams. In 1972, roughly 61 percent of low-income high school seniors, and 67 percent of their more-affluent peers, participated in one more more non-athletic extracurricular activities. A decade later, participation rates rose to about 65 percent and 73 percent, respectively. But by 1992, while 75 percent of upper- and middle-class seniors reported participating in extracurriculars, involvement among disadvantaged students dropped back to 61 percent. By 2004, the number for low-income seniors was down to 56 percent. Participation in sports echoed those trends, though the falloff didn’t happen until 1992, when involvement rates among low-income seniors fell from 30 percent to 25 percent a decade later.

With all of the challenges plaguing schools today—including those that surround the academic achievement gap between rich and poor students—it may seem frivolous to focus on extracurricular participation. But, as the researchers emphasize, outside experiences have just as much impact on a child’s life as the classroom ones. As researcher Kaisa Snellman, an organizational-behavior professor at the international business school INSEAD, put it, "the point we’re trying to make is that schools affect kids’ lives in multiple ways." Some data suggests that involvement in extracurricular activities is just as meaningful as test scores when it comes to subsequent educational attainment and accumulated earnings later in life.

Indeed, the benefits of extracurricular activities—from chess club to the yearbook committee—appear to be far-reaching. Research shows that the skills, habits, connections, and knowledge that kids develop in these activities help them gain self-esteem and resilience and reduce the likelihood that they’ll engage in risky behavior such as drug use, delinquency, and sexual activity. They could even lead to higher wages and more opportunities for career advancement, as well as increase the likelihood of voting and engaging in politics.

And not only do extracurricular activities help kids hone "soft skills" and other abilities integral to successful careers and adult lives (such as ambition and curiosity), but they can also help boost academic performance. Even after controlling for socioeconomic factors and cognitive ability, extracurricular participation is linked with higher grades and graduation rates, some research suggests. In her interview, Nicole, for example, recalled how she improved her grades the year she was on the dance team because participants were required to pass their classes in order to compete. Meanwhile, college admissions offices tend to give preference to students who have prolific resumes demonstrating their engagement outside of school—a tendency that’s grown in recent alongside increased student demand for higher education.

"Clearly, extracurricular activities instill the skills and values that matter most for upward mobility," the researchers write.

And given the advantages of extracurriculars, as well as the types of hardships associated with children from low-income families, exposure to these activities could have a pronounced impact on disadvantaged youth. Low-income children are more likely than their middle-class peers to grow up in unstable households, struggle in school, and witness violence firsthand, according to the authors’ analysis of 2011-12 data from the National Survey of Children’s Health. (The study considers low-income families as those living at 199 percent of the 2011 federal poverty level or below, or about $50,400 or below for a family of four, while middle-class families include those making 400 percent and up of the federal poverty level, or $89,400 plus.)

Whereas close to 15 percent of low-income children that year had repeated one or more grades, for example, the rate was 4 percent for  middle-to-upper-class kids. And more than one out of every 10 low-income children had a parent who had served time in jail, compared with 2 percent of their wealthier counterparts. Extracurricular activities can give kids like these access to adult mentors who might otherwise be lacking in their lives.

The researchers attribute the growing disparities in extracurricular involvement in large part to rising income inequality in the country. Families of means have more money to spend on their children, and consumer research suggests that these parents are doling out an increasing share of their income on non-material experiences for their kids. Meanwhile, as competition for college has soared, so too has these families’ interest in "building their children’s ‘resumes’," the researchers write. That also means they’re making "a group of children who could really benefit from a college education less and less marketable," Snellman said.

Then there’s the funding issue: As budget cuts force districts to reduce spending and as testing pressures and new learning mandates reshape classroom priorities, extracurriculars are often the first expenses schools cut. When that happens, it’s typically up to parents to foot the bill. For families with means, the costs are usually nominal, but for those struggling to get by, they could mean the difference between a kid competing in a sport, or playing in the school band, and staying on the sidelines or missing out on a new instrument.

The researchers estimate that each activity can cost parents as much as $600; for a family with two kids participating in two activities a year, that's $2,400. And considering the experiences of Ethan and Nicole, that could make a big difference in a child’s quality of life later down the line.

As the researchers write, "As Ethan prepares to graduate from college and pursue a lucrative career in engineering, Nicole is struggling to raise a child on minimum wage."