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Extracurricular Participation and Student Engagement

June 1995

(NCES 95-741) Ordering information

The NCES Education Policy Issues series is designed to provide the best statistical information available on important policy questions. The series primarily provides responses grounded in statistical findings, but also, as appropriate, provides some information based on smaller scale research and case studies.


Almost every high school in the U.S. offers some type of extracurricular activity, such as music, academic clubs, and sports. These activities offer opportunities for students to learn the values of teamwork, individual and group responsibility, physical strength and endurance, competition, diversity, and a sense of culture and community. Extracurricular activities provide a channel for reinforcing the lessons learned in the classroom, offering students the opportunity to apply academic skills in a real-world context, and are thus considered part of a well-rounded education. Recent research suggests that participation in extracurricular activities may increase students' sense of engagement or attachment to their school, and thereby decrease the likelihood of school failure and dropping out (Lamborn et al, 1992; Finn, 1993). If, indeed, participation in extracurricular activities can lead to success in school, then the availability of these activities to students of all backgrounds becomes an important equity issue. This issue brief examines the relationship between extracurricular participation and student engagement in school using data from 1992 public high school seniors in the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS). The brief also explores whether the availability of these activities varies according to school characteristics, and whether participation differs according to student background and school setting.

Is participation in extracurricular activities related to students' success in school?

Indicators of successful participation in school include consistent attendance, academic achievement, and aspirations for continuing education beyond high school. Extracurricular participation(1) was positively associated with each of these success indicators among public high school seniors in 1992 (table 1). During the first semester of their senior year, participants reported better attendance than their non-participating classmates--half of them had no unexcused absences from school and half had never skipped a class, compared with one-third and two-fifths of nonparticipants, respectively. Students who participated were three times as likely to perform in the top quartile on a composite math and reading assessment compared with nonparticipants. Participants were also more likely than nonparticipants to aspire to higher education: two-thirds of participants expected to complete at least a bachelor's degree while about half of nonparticipants expected to do so. It cannot be known from these data, however, whether participation leads to success, successful students are more inclined to participate, or both occur.

Table 1. Percentage of public school seniors reporting selected indicators of school success by participation and nonparticipation in extracurricular activities, 1992

Indicators                                      Participants    participants
No unexcused absences*                             50.4             36.2
Never skipped classes*                             50.7             42.3
Have a GPA of 3.0 or above                         30.6             10.8
Highest quartile on a composite math and
 reading assessment                                29.8             14.2
Expect to earn a bachelor's degree
 or higher                                         68.2             48.2

* During first semester of their senior year.

Are extracurricular activities available to all students?

Virtually all students in public schools reported that a core of extracurricular activities was available to them, including sports, performing arts, publications, and honor societies; and all but a small percentage had access to academic clubs and student government (table 2). Slightly less available were non-academic clubs, such as vocational/professional clubs, followed by service and hobby clubs. Furthermore, despite concerns about scarce resources in schools serving poor students, no important differences in availability of extracurricular activities in relatively less affluent and more affluent schools(2) were found. Similarly, regardless of whether the schools attended were large (750 students or more) or small (less than 150), in rural, urban or suburban settings, or served large (20 percent or more minority) or small proportions of minority students (less than 20 percent), almost all students reported that extracurricular activities were available to them (data not shown in table).

Table 2. Percentage of public school seniors reporting availability of selected extracurricular activities, by affluence of school, 1992

                               Students Reporting Availability 
                                     of Activity (percent)  
                                   All         Less       More
                                public     affluent   affluent
                               schools      schools    schools 
Any extracurricular activity      99.8         99.8       99.9
Publications                      99.4         99.3       99.6
Performing arts                   98.8         98.7       99.1
Sports (individual and team)      98.7         98.6       99.1
Honor societies                   98.1         97.4       98.8
Student government                96.5         94.9       97.6
Academic clubs                    95.9         94.6       97.0
Vocational/professional clubs     93.3         93.4       93.7
Service clubs                     89.2         87.2       90.7
Hobby clubs                       87.5         85.4       89.2

Who takes advantage of extracurricular activities?

About four of every five seniors said they participated in at least one extracurricular activity in 1992. Although a range of extracurricular activities was available to almost all students, students differed markedly in their choice of activities (table 3). Sports (either individual or team) had the widest participation, involving 42 percent of seniors in 1992, followed by performing arts and academic clubs. Honor societies, publications, and student government, which by definition have more limited memberships than other activities, each still drew 16 to 18 percent of seniors.

Although differences in availability of extracurricular opportunities between less affluent and more affluent schools were small or nonexistent, students of low socioeconomic status (SES) were less likely to participate in activities than were high SES students(3). Almost three-quarters of low SES students participated in at least one activity, compared with 87 percent of high SES students. The participation of low SES students was consistently lower than that of high SES students in each type of activity, with the exception of vocational or professional clubs, such as Future Farmers or Future Teachers of America, in which low SES students were almost twice as likely to participate.

Some researchers have suggested that the social context of the school might have a positive or negative influence on student behavior, depending on whether the individual student is in the relative minority or majority in the school (Karweit, 1983). Low SES students, for example, may be more likely to participate in schools where they are in the majority and less likely to participate in more affluent schools where they are in the relative minority. These data include, however, that regardless of their socioeconomic background, students' participation was not related to the social context of the school--low SES students participated at the same rates whether they attended less affluent or more affluent schools, and so did high SES students.

If individual socioeconomic factors, rather than school factors, account for differences in participation, what is it about individuals, particularly those from lower SES families, that makes a difference? Researchers have identified several barriers to student participation, ranging from the more tangible, including family or work responsibilities, limited resources for equipment or other expenses, and transportation or other logistical difficulties, to the more complex, such as lack of interest in or alienation from school and its activities (Kleese and D'Onofrio, 1994).

Table 3. Percentage of public school seniors participating in selected extracurricular activities by SES of student and affluence of school, 1992

                                      Low SES students   High SES students 
                                     -----------------  ------------------
                                        Less      More      Less      More
                               *All  affluent affluent  affluent  affluent
Selected activity          students  students students  students  students
Any activity                   79.9      74.7     73.0      86.8      87.6
Sports                         42.4      34.3     33.2      48.6      53.1
Performing arts                27.5      25.0     20.7      32.0      29.2
Academic clubs                 26.2      20.2     20.5      36.2      32.3
Vocational/professional clubs  20.8      29.2     25.6      16.0      11.8
Honor societies                18.1      10.3     10.0      30.8      29.9
Publications                   17.0      17.6      9.5      22.4      20.0
Student government             15.5      12.6      9.9      17.5      20.9
Service clubs                  15.2      10.0      9.4      25.0      21.1
Hobby clubs                     8.5       8.2      6.9       9.4       9.6

* Includes students in middle two quartiles.


Although it cannot be known from these data whether the relationship between participation in extracurricular activities and success in school is causal, and although degree or intensity of participation is not measured, it is clear that participation and success are strongly associated as evidenced by participants' better attendance, higher levels of achievement, and aspirations to higher levels of education. Furthermore, the data indicate that differences in participation were not related to differences in availability, as extracurricular activities were available to virtually all high school seniors regardless of the affluence, size, location or minority status of the schools students attended. Despite wide availability of activities, low SES students participated less than did their high SES classmates. This participation gap is a cause for concern, especially if extracurricular activities can be a means of bringing at-risk students more fully into the school community, thereby increasing their chances of school success. In spite of the gap, however, low SES students participated at fairly high levels, and they persisted in their participation regardless of the relative affluence of the schools they attended. Neither the gap nor the persistence is explained by these data, but together they suggest the value of further study of the individual constraints of poverty and family background and the influence of school community on student engagement.


Finn, J.D. (1993). School engagement and students at risk. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Karweit, Nancy and Hansell, Steve. (1983). "School Organization and Friendship Selection," in Friends in School, ed. Joyce Epstein and Nancy Karweit, New York: Academic Press.

Kleese, Edward J. and D'Onofrio, Jan A. (1994). Student Activities for Students At Risk. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Lamborn, S.D., Brown, B.B., Mounts, N.S., & Steinberg, L. (1992). Putting School in perspective: The influence of family, peers, extracurricular participation, and part-time work on academic engagement. Chapter 6 in Student engagement and achievement in American secondary schools.


1. A student was classified as a participant if he or she marked "participated" or "participated as an officer" in at least one of the extracurricular activities listed.

2. School affluence was defined by the percent of the student body receiving free or reduced price lunches; schools at 20 percent or more students receiving free lunch were considered less affluent and those with less than 20 percent more affluent.

3. Low and high SES are defined at the bottom and top quartile, respectively, of a composite measure of parent education and occupational status and of family income.


SOURCE: All data in this issue brief are from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Education Longitudinal Study, Second Follow-up, 1992.

This brief was prepared by Eileen O'Brien of Policy Studies Associates and Mary Rollefson of the National Center for Education Statistics. For more information, contact Jeff Owings at