For the past few years, participation in afterschool programs has dropped precipitously. Families of 24.6 million children—an increase of 60 percent since 2004—are unable to access a program and many report cost as a barrier, according to a new survey from the Afterschool Alliance.
The study, America After 3pm: Demand Grows, Opportunity Shrinks, identifies trends in afterschool program offerings and shares overall parent perceptions of afterschool programs. With responses from more than 30,000 U.S. families, this survey builds on the household surveys conducted in 2004, 2009 and 2014. While it offers a pre-pandemic snapshot of how children and youth spend their afternoons, it also includes findings from a separate survey of parents conducted in fall 2020, to capture the pandemic’s impact on afterschool.
The Wallace Blog caught up with Jennifer Rinehart, Senior VP, Strategy & Programs at the Afterschool Alliance, to discuss the implications of the survey and what they might mean for a post-pandemic world.
This is the fourth edition of America After 3PM. Why did you start collecting these data and what is the value in continuing to do so?
America After 3PM was the first research undertaking at the Afterschool Alliance and continues to be a pillar of our work. In the early 2000s, we realized very quickly that there wasn’t a data source that provided a comprehensive view of how kids in America spend their afterschool hours, and we set out to remedy that. As a field building, policy and advocacy organization, we recognized that having good research and data would be critical to our success in helping all young people access quality afterschool and summer programs. And we knew it wasn’t enough to have just a national snapshot. We’d need families from every state, families at all income levels and all races and ethnicities, to really tell the story of who has access to afterschool and summer programs, who is missing out, and why. Through the fourth edition of America After 3PM, we surveyed more than 31,000 families to capture this in-depth and detailed portrait of the afterschool hours across the U.S.
Unmet demand for afterschool programs continues to be a major issue, but access and availability of programs is still a concern. Can you talk more about this?
America After 3PM paints a picture of the huge unmet demand for afterschool programs, with the heaviest burdens falling on low-income families and families of color. The families of nearly 25 million children are unable to access a program. That’s more than ever before; for every child in an afterschool program in America, three more are waiting to get in.
More families report that cost and transportation, as well as overall lack of programs, are barriers today than in 2014, and that is especially the case for families with low-income and families of color.
Despite this demand, your recent survey found that participation in afterschool programs has actually decreased for the first time since Afterschool Alliance started doing the survey. Do you have any thoughts on why?
That’s right. We found that about 8 million children and youth are enrolled in afterschool programs today. That’s down from just over 10 million in 2014. We know from parent responses that cost and access are the biggest barriers to participation.
Even more troubling than the decline in participation are the inequities in terms of which students can access programs. The number of children from low-income households participating in afterschool fell from 4.6 million in 2014 to 2.7 million in 2020. The number of higher-income children in afterschool fell by just under 450,000 over the same period.
Publicly funded afterschool and summer programs like the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) and state-funded programs have been a backbone of support for many young people from low-income households. However, these investments are not keeping up with the demand for programs, and a significant number of low-income young people are being denied the opportunity to participate in afterschool programs. We are very concerned that low-income families who in the past could manage to pay for programs can no longer do so.
We know that children in low-income families have more limited learning and enrichment opportunities outside of school compared to their higher income peers. How does having afterschool opportunities help to close this opportunity gap?
The opportunity gap and the achievement gap are clearly connected. If we can begin to close the gap in terms of who has access to afterschool and summer learning and enrichment, we can also begin to close the achievement gap.
Quality afterschool programs have a long history of expanding opportunity for young people by supporting academics and learning, but also by supporting the whole child and helping struggling families. Afterschool programs help children with schoolwork; provide opportunities to explore subjects like science, technology, engineering and math; give them time to be social and active; help them develop life skills and more. The research base is clear that kids who regularly participate in afterschool programs can improve their work habits and grades, attend school more often, get excited about learning and have higher graduation rates.
The opportunity gap goes beyond access to afterschool and summer programs. In America After 3PM, we also ask about other types of enrichment in the after school and summer hours—things like sports, music and art lessons, and more—and how much families spend on those out-of-school-time opportunities.
Similar to other research on the opportunity gap, we found that higher income families report greater access to afterschool, summer and other out-of-school activities, and higher-income families spend more than five times as much on those opportunities than families in the lowest income bracket [roughly $3,600 vs. $700 per year].
According to the report, more than 8 in 10 parents surveyed said that afterschool helps working parents keep their jobs. What other feedback did you hear from parents?
Parents recognize a wide array of benefits associated with participation in afterschool programs. Parents agree that afterschool programs provide time for kids to engage with their peers and reduce unproductive screen time (85 percent), get kids more excited about learning and interested in school (74 percent) and reduce the likelihood that youth will use drugs or engage in other risky behaviors (75 percent).
And, the benefits of participation extend to parents as well. When asked about supports they receive from programs, 78 percent of parents with a child enrolled in afterschool report that programs help them keep their jobs, and 71 percent say that programs allow them to build their skills through classes or workshops offered.
Given that wide range of benefits, it’s no surprise that parents give afterschool programs very high marks. Ninety-four percent of parents are satisfied with their child’s program. This is the highest level of satisfaction in the history of America After 3PM and is an indication that programs are providing high-quality programming that meets the needs of kids and families.
How have parent perceptions about afterschool and its value changed since COVID-19? What is the impact of the pandemic on future demand?
While most of the data for America After 3PM were collected pre-pandemic (January through early March of 2020), we also fielded America After 3PM oversample surveys in a handful of localities from April through June, which provide a glimpse into how parents’ thinking about afterschool did or didn’t change in the midst of the pandemic.
While these data are from a smaller sample of households, we found that at the household level, parents without a child in an afterschool program in the aggregate oversample were just as likely to say that they would likely enroll their child in an afterschool program if one were available as parents surveyed at the start of the year (59 percent vs. 59 percent).
In a nationally representative follow up survey conducted in October 2020, parents also reported similar barriers to participation in the midst of COVID. While the biggest barriers were COVID-related, beyond those COVID concerns, we saw the same top barriers related to cost and access.
These data suggest that as we move towards recovery and focus on what children need to thrive and what parents need to get and keep jobs, we can expect to return to previous levels of demand for programs, and we will need to provide supports for afterschool programs to increase the capacity of existing programs and make sure more of them are available to meet the needs of all kids and families.
How can we use the findings of this study to help provide children with affordable, quality afterschool programs and what kind of support and/or funding is needed?
While there have been modest increases to federal funding for afterschool since 2014, the increases have not been enough to keep up with the costs of providing a high-quality afterschool program. In fact, when adjusted for inflation, the investment in 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC) is actually $10 million less today than it was in 2014. Several states have increased their funding for afterschool and those investments are critical in helping keep low-income young people in afterschool programs in those states. California is a notable example with higher than average participation levels in afterschool due in part to its state investment.
We need to use these data to convince governments at all levels, businesses, philanthropies and others to prioritize funding for afterschool programs.
What would you like policymakers to take away from this survey?
Afterschool and summer programs were a key support for young people and families prior to the pandemic and have been rising to the moment during the pandemic to meet the needs of children and families. All our children and youth need access to the enrichment opportunities and resources afterschool programs provide and it’s clear from America After 3PM that too many were missing out prior to the pandemic, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated the disparities in access.
As we move forward, we need to be smart and invest in our future. There’s no question that afterschool is a smart investment for kids, families, our workforce, our economy and our country. Supporting afterschool is essential to help children succeed in school and in life and to help us emerge from the pandemic strong.