The new face of inequality: extracurricular activities

Extracurricular Activities

Think about this all for a second:

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.

Ruh roh.

When we think or talk about inequality, or see the B-Roll on the news over segments about it, it’s very rarely about the high school level and extracurricular activities. It’s rather poor people in poor neighborhoods, or gentrification footage, or people rolling through a ghetto in a BMW. (The last one was maybe a little bit aggressive on my part.)

But this is a big issue: the extracurriculars you do in middle and high school have a great deal to do with shaping who you are and what you want to become, as well as teaching you skills that you don’t get in a standard classroom. (A good example would be curiosity.)

I feel this way in my own life. I was never very good at sports during that time of my life, and I always felt bad about that; I liked sports and talking about it and playing it, but I was never good enough to even make a JV team most of the time. I moved on from playing but kept passionate about it and managed a few teams (lame, I know); years later, I worked for ESPN. I like to write and do so a lot; I was the sports editor of my HS newspaper, which was a weekly (big commitment, large chunk of my time). I like talking through issues and thinking about them in different ways and from different perspectives; in HS, I was a big deal (ha) on the debate team. All these things led me towards things in my pseudo-adulthood.

Now here’s the rub: I didn’t grow up affluent, but I grew up well-off, you know? As The Atlantic notes, an average extracurricular activity is about $600. So let’s say you have 2 kids, and they each do 2 activities over a school year. That’s $2,400. If only one parent is working and there are other payments out there — debt, cars, house, etc. — that can be a strain. It’s no wonder the participation rates are dropping. As for how much?

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.

Think about this in terms of standard college acceptance discussions, too: everyone loves to talk about extracurriculars, i.e. “His extracurriculars look good.” But what if you simply don’t have the ability to access those kinds of opportunities? That limits your college prospects to an extent, right? You don’t seem as well-rounded, when in reality maybe the issue is simply your parents’ ability to pay for a sport with a lot of equipment or a chess team that travels to five other states a year.

Broader point is this: when we talk about inequality, we often talk about things like this or this or this. Maybe instead of the broad terms, we should be thinking about this at the micro level — about what happens at 3:30pm in schools all over America.

Ted Bauer