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Involvement in extracurricular activities (e.g., sports, cultural groups, or special interest clubs) is associated with a range of positive outcomes, including academic success and psychosocial well-being (e.g., Kilgo, Mollet, & Pascarella, 2016; Stuart, Lido, Morgan, Solomon, & May, 2011; Tieu et al., 2010). Despite these links, many students remain uninvolved during college. For instance, findings from a large, nationally representative sample suggest that although 93% of students beginning college expected to be active in their university’s social and community extracurricular activities offered, only 32% participated in these activities during their first year of enrollment (National Survey of Student Engagement, 2005). This disparity in the intent to participate and actual participation is less understood. For example, there may be potential barriers which impede upon the intent to participate, but currently, few studies examine this question. The current investigation relies on qualitative data to understand the barriers to extracurricular participation in a sample drawn from a diverse, regional comprehensive university in the western United States.
Research on extracurricular activity involvement has shown a range of positive outcomes, spanning both academic and psychosocial well-being. Structured activity involvement outside of the classroom is linked with greater adjustment in the first year of college (Tieu et al., 2010). Moreover, alumni reflect on transferable skills, as well as the benefits of connecting with an academically-oriented peer network, gained through their activities in college (Stuart et al., 2011). Various activities have also shown to be linked with greater initiative, self-awareness, and leadership (Clark, Marsden, Whyatt, Thompson, & Walker, 2015), all of which may be linked with academic success. Lastly, extracurricular activities have been shown to be linked positively with a higher grade point average, standardized test scores, and attendance, among other academic success outcomes during high school and college (e.g., O’Donnell & Kirkner, 2014; Stuart et al., 2011).
These studies suggest that activities are linked with adjustment, skill building, and engagement in ways that positively enhance academic performance. In addition to benefits to academic engagement and performance, extracurricular participation has also been positively correlated with psychosocial well-being, broadly defined. Commonly, college students report high stress and burnout (e.g., Bewick, Koutsopoulou, Miles, Slaa, & Barkham, 2010), and these factors lead to early attrition for some students (ACT, 2017). Participating in campus activities may serve as a buffer to psychosocial maladjustment. For instance, campus involvement is linked with dimensions of psychosocial well-being like self-acceptance, a sense of purpose, positive interactions with others, and autonomy (Kilgo et al., 2016). Among students in their first year of college, activity involvement is also linked with lower feelings of loneliness (Bohnert, Aikins, & Edidin, 2007). These psychosocial benefits likely extend to mental health outcomes. Although less studied among college students, high school students enrolled in extracurricular activities also report higher levels of belongingness at school, and subsequently, are less likely to experience suicidal ideation (Mata, van Dulmen, Schinka, Bossarte, & Flannery, 2012). High school activity involvement is also linked with a range of positive outcomes over the transition to college, including potential negative affective (i.e., depression and anxiety) and behavioral components (i.e., drug use and binge drinking), as well as lower externalizing and internalizing behaviors (Fredricks & Eccles, 2006; Fredricks & Eccles, 2010). Given how extracurricular activities can promote well-being, broadly defined, a critical question is: what prevents those who are uninvolved from participating?
Barriers to Extracurricular Participation Although there is a growing body of research on the benefits of extracurricular activities, few studies have examined barriers to involvement in a college-aged sample. Below, we discuss potential barriers relating to situational financial demands (e.g., financial situation or employment), family relationships, and social-emotional adjustment that are known to be part of the college experience for many, and have been shown to affect engagement on campus and academic success. Finances and job responsibilities. Socio-economic background, current finances, and job responsibilities are often found to play a role in campus engagement and extracurricular participation (Fairchild, 2003), or the lack thereof for some students.
Students from lower socio-economic status backgrounds attending four-year colleges and universities are less likely to engage in extracurricular activities (Stuart et al., 2011; Walpole, 2003), which may be explained by more time spent working. In turn, these students also study less and have a lower overall grade point average, compared to their peers from higher socio-economic status backgrounds (Walpole, 2003). One’s current financial circumstances can also affect their engagement in activities. Finances are not only required to complete academic work in a timely manner, but also to engage in activities or clubs that require fees or other payments, like sports teams, sororities/fraternities, or honor societies often can. Thus, one’s financial situation, whether in terms of their background or current circumstances, can affect participation. Relatedly, although part- or full-time employment may provide added resources, such work is often found to be a barrier to campus engagement given the time and energy needed. Unique compared to other periods of life, many college students maintain adult responsibilities while balancing school. Approximately 80% of undergraduates maintain a part-time job while enrolled in college full-time (Perna, 2010), with this percentage higher among students at the junior college level. With the rise of tuition, cost of living, and a growing need for experience, it is unrealistic for many students to abstain from working throughout their college years (Perna, 2010). Employment may also present a barrier to extracurricular involvement in terms of the demands on one’s time to be involved on campus. Although time spent working has a positive effect on the psychological well-being of adult students (Chartrand, 1992), it can come at the cost of monopolizing most of their extra time outside of school (Terrell, 1990) that could then be dedicated to extracurricular activities.
Family responsibilities. Aside from financial considerations, many students balance significant responsibilities to their family. Especially on campuses with non-traditional student populations, students may have parents, grandparents, or other extended family, and/or children of their own, with whom they live or otherwise support. Rather than move or pay for on-campus housing, many students make the decision to stay at home, with Hispanic-American and in-state students especially likely to do so (Gianoutsos & Rosser, 2014). Commuter students report less involvement in school-funded and club activities, although they express a desire to participate (Alfano & Eduljee, 2013). It is likely that with a commute looming ahead, and potential responsibilities at home, there is less time to devote to campus activities.
Accordingly, perceived obligations to the family, and the stress of balancing multiple, important roles, may also affect campus involvement. Family obligations, in terms of self-reported current assistance, respect for one’s family, and expectations for future support, increase during young adulthood, especially for those from Asian- or Latinx-American backgrounds (Fuligni & Pedersen, 2002). Although such family obligations have been shown to both help and hinder academic success outcomes, depending on other factors (Fuligni & Pedersen, 2002), making financial contributions to the family has been linked with lower persistence in college (Witkow, Huynh, & Fuligni, 2015). Latinx-American college students, particularly women, may face heightened pressures to contribute to the family in ways that can affect their experience in college (Sy & Romero, 2008). Indeed, time spent caring for the family may be one factor linked with a feeling of role overload, due to student, family, and job demands (Home, 1998).
Many students that are full time find it hard to anticipate what the effects may be like when they are combined with demands of a caregiver role (Fairchild, 2003), and women may be disproportionately affected by the high stress, anxiety, and depression linked with increases in a caregiving role, demands, and time conflicts (Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002). Thus, especially when students balance responsibilities to the family at home, dedicating time to activities may feel especially onerous or impossible. Social-emotional adjustment. One’s social-emotional adjustment, including their emotional well-being and sense of connectedness to the campus community, may also affect their engagement in activities. Although less studied than the effect of activity involvement on subsequent well-being (e.g., Kilgo et al., 2016), it is also likely that those with higher social-emotional well-being are in a better position to seek out and join an activity. For instance, a high frequency of stressors (e.g., disputes with professors) is associated with a lower grade point average, whereas lower self-esteem and fatigue are linked with attrition (Pritchard & Wilson, 2003). On the other hand, a sense of commitment to one’s university is linked with campus involvement, including classroom engagement and independent learning (Wang & Kennedy-Phillips, 2013). Although these studies do not examine extracurricular involvement directly, we believe that similarly, social-emotional well-being would also predict the likelihood of joining an extracurricular activity.
In addition to a larger sense of emotional well-being and connectedness to the campus community, the nature and quality of day-to-day interactions with one’s peers on campus may affect involvement. Specifically, one’s own engagement and learning may be affected by the peers with whom they spend the most time. Having peers who are strong students often affects one’s own engagement and learning positively (Zimmerman, 2003). Similarly, students who are engaged in activities are likely to have peers and friends who also participate, whereas those disengaged may affiliate with disengaged peers. Additionally, positive peer relationships may increase the likelihood to seek out, join, and continue in activities. Positive peer relationships have been shown to strengthen factors associated with academic engagement and success (Callahan, 2009), including self-confidence and -efficacy, sense of identity, connectedness with others at one’s university, and development of relationships with a diverse set of peers (Carrell, Fullerton, & West, 2009; Duncan et al., 2005; Kremer & Levy, 2008; Liu & Liu, 2000; Marmaros & Sacerdote, 2006; Pascarella, 2005; Sacerdote, 2001, 2011; Winston & Zimmerman, 2004; Zimmerman, 2003). For instance, a student who is confident in their sense of self is more likely in the position to select and approach a novel activity. On the other hand, those who experience negative peer relationships or interactions on a college campus may be less likely to participate in extracurricular activities. In either direction, peer relationships are likely to affect campus engagement.
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