After the last school bell rings, teenagers have a variety of options to occupy their time. The number of options multiplies due to several factors. First, older age correlates to increased freedom. In addition, parents or guardians are likely to work after school lets out. Second, in urban neighborhoods, teenagers have access to a variety of locations. Friends’ houses, parks, fast food restaurants, and public transit are all within walking distance. Teens are not dependent on rides from parents or older siblings.
From participating in after-school activities to hanging out with friends, what teens do and the people with whom they interact either reinforce or detract from college access. Meaningful after-school activities provide extended learning opportunities and engender college-going behaviors. That knowledge and those behaviors even extend to informal activities such as playing basketball or eating at a fast food restaurant with friends. During those times, teens discuss a range of issues including choosing and paying for college. In contrast, informal activities such as gangbanging or doing drugs have the ability to derail college access. Poor choices out of school lead to poor grades in school. Not only are the teens participating in illicit activities, the conversations differ starkly from those of their more academically engaged teens.
President Obama is sounding the alarm for increased postsecondary opportunities. At the same time, district administrators are making tough choices. Those choices include which programs to fund and which positions to staff. Unfortunately, after-school activities are often the first to go. The reasoning goes something like, “We have to focus on the core, not the periphery. An after-school college prep program is nice, but it won’t improve test scores.” That reasoning ignores the value of after-school programs, which provide supervision, mentorship, and extended learning opportunities.
If we want to improve college access, it’s time to focus on the first three hours after school.