Do extracurricular activities protect against early school dropout?

Mahoney, J. L. & Cairns, R. B. (1997). Do extracurricular activities protect against early school dropout? Developmental Psychology, 33(2), 241-253.1

Abstract:

Researchers followed 392 students from seventh to twelfth grade and interviewed them annually about extracurricular activities. They classified students as having had any vs. no involvement in fine arts, athletics, or vocational extracurricular activity. They also monitored students for early school dropout. Students who dropped out of school had participated in significantly fewer extracurricular activities at all grades, including several years prior to dropout. At the middle school level, it was only athletic participation that differentiated dropouts from non-dropouts; fine arts participation was not related to dropout, nor were vocational activities. At the high school level, there was a near-significant effect showing that those who dropped out were more likely to have had no involvement in extracurricular arts than to have had arts involvement. The research detected an even more significant difference for those involved in athletics vs. not involved and for those involved in vocational training vs. not so involved.

Key Findings:

Sixteen percent (27 girls, 34 boys) were early school dropouts. Students who dropped out of school had participated in significantly fewer extracurricular activities at all grades, including several years prior to dropout. At the middle school level, it was only athletic participation that differentiated dropouts from non-dropouts: those who did not drop out had been significantly more involved in athletics than those who did drop out. Fine arts participation was not related to dropout, nor were vocational activities. At the high school level, there was a near-significant effect (p = .08) showing that those who dropped out were more likely to have had no involvement in extracurricular arts (27 percent) than to have had arts involvement (7 percent). The research detected an even more significant difference for those involved in athletics vs. not involved (p<.01), and for those involved in vocational training vs. not so involved (p =.01).

Significance of the Findings:

This study points to positive effects of extracurricular activities on lowering dropout rates for boys and girls, particularly for students with early participation. The greatest impact was observed among those who were at the highest risk for dropout—for those students who had been identified as competent or highly competent during middle school, involvement in extracurricular activities was only modestly related to early school dropout. The authors speculate that participation in extracurricular activities may provide at-risk students with opportunities to develop positive connections to school and to more conventional social networks, and to promote their individual interests, achievements, and goals. The reduction in school dropout for at-risk students was even greater during early high school, a significant trend as it occurs at the point where students reach the age of 16, when school is no longer mandatory, and overall dropout rates typically climb. An examination of the findings related to involvement in particular activity domains reveals that while in middle school, only participation in athletics was positively associated with a reduced dropout rate. At the secondary level, participation in athletics, vocational training, and fine arts were associated with a reduced rate of dropout.

Methodology:

Researchers followed 392 students (206 girls, 186 boys), recruited in the early 1980s, from seventh to twelfth grade and interviewed them annually about extracurricular activities. They classified students as having had any vs. no involvement in fine arts, athletics, or vocational extracurricular activity. They also monitored students for early school dropout, defined as failure to complete eleventh grade.

Limitations of the Research:

As a correlational study, this research does not establish causal links between extracurricular participation and remaining in school.

Questions to Guide New Research:

What motivates students to join extracurricular activities and to maintain their participation?

What causative mechanisms link extracurricular participation and staying in school?

1The text of this summary is adapted from the Arts Education Partnership’s 2002 research compendium: Deasy, R. J. (Ed.). (2002). Critical links: Learning in the arts and student academic and social development. Washington, DC: Arts Education Partnership.