The social value of high school extracurricular time

by JonahS7 min read6th Apr 201425 comments

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Ambitious high school students are typically heavily constrained in the sense that maximizing their college admissions prospects comes at the cost of spending a lot of time on coursework. See for example our page on College statements on the importance of grades and coursework. Outside of improving college admissions prospects, this is often a waste of time. In What You'll Wish You Had Known, Y Combinator founder Paul Graham wrote:

Right now most of you feel your job in life is to be a promising college applicant. But that means you're designing your life to satisfy a process so mindless that there's a whole industry devoted to subverting it. [...] So what do you do? What you should not do is rebel. [...] By putting you in this situation, society has fouled you. Yes, as you suspect, a lot of the stuff you learn in your classes is crap. And yes, as you suspect, the college admissions process is largely a charade. But like many fouls, this one was unintentional. So just keep playing.

However, colleges grant students considerable latitude with respect to how they spend their time on extracurricular activities. In What colleges look for in extracurricular activities I reported on conversations with admissions officers in which they said that it doesn't matter what extracurricular activities a student is involved in as long as he/she demonstrates characteristics such as passion and commitment. My post got a lot of pushback (in part because I framed the finding suboptimally), but based on these conversations and on reading writings by college admissions consultants, even if college admissions officers have some preferences, it's unlikely that they're sufficiently strong and narrow so that there's not considerable variability in the value of the activities that students can engage in and still look good to colleges. This raises the possibility that there's considerable potential for high school students to benefit more from their extracurricular activities and to contribute more social value through them (whether directly or indirectly).

This post focuses on social value, with the background context that social value contributed is often aligned with a person's interests, whether they be altruistic or financial. In some places below, I use income as a proxy to social value, though it's an imperfect one. The arguments below don't depend on the use of this proxy, it's just convenient for giving rough quantitative estimates. The calculations below are very rough and should not be taken literally. The significance of the results of the calculations is seen in their order of magnitude and so small fractional errors in estimation don't affect the bottom line.

A baseline

It seems reasonable to assume that on average, motivated students spend at least 10 hours of time on extracurricular activities a week, with the number much higher during summer months. Thus, one gets a plausible lower bound of 500 hours/year/person.

A lower bound for the economic value that could in principle be generated with this time comes from the assumption that these hours be spent on minimum wage paying jobs. If one assumes average wages of $10/hour, one gets a figure of $5k/year/student.

How many students are there? There are about 4 million students of a given age in America, so 16 million people of high school age, which corresponds to roughly 50 million in the developed world. Attaching the $5k/year/person figure to these people gives $250 billion/year. (The figure would be smaller if one excluded high school dropouts, but not substantially.) Those in Cognito Mentoring's target audience constitute a subset of about 1% of the size, so the figure is $2.5 billion/year for high school students in our target audience.

(This may be higher than the status quo – it's just a lower bound in principle.) 

How much potential for improvement relative to the baseline is there through changed habits? For habits to change, some causal pathway would have to exist to facilitate the change. But for the moment, consider a high school student in the top ~1% academically who's willing to consider all possible options, and choose the ones that best meet her goals. How much better more economic value would she generate than $5k/year?

Hypothetical routes toward productivity boosts

One possible path is to build human capital so as to enter the workforce as a higher skilled worker at an earlier stage.

For a rough quantitative estimate, consider the following hypothetical. The student could supplement high school courses with college courses (taking at night or during summers) and graduate from college and enter the workforce a year earlier. She could plausibly do this by spending an extra 500 hours/year (over the course of 4 years, that would be enough to take a full year's worth of college courses). Assuming that after college she takes a job with starting salary of $25/hr and a 40 hour work week, the payoff is then $12.5k/year of high school "extracurricular" time, within the first year (not counting the returns coming from being able to get higher paying jobs earlier in subsequent years). This is roughly 2x as high as working a minimum wage paying job.

Extracurricular activities often serve as a change of pace from academic activities, so it's not clear that people would be able to do this without worsened overall academic performance, or that they'd want to. Moreover, doing academic activities exclusively would plausibly send a negative signal to colleges, reducing expected starting salary. But students can still move in this direction to some extent, for example, a student considering becoming a programmer might consider contributing to StackOverflow and building her skills in the process.

Another is to spend the time learning about different careers. By doing research on careers, and internships, the student could better evaluate what she would like to do. In expectation, aside from increasing personal satisfaction, this would also increase productivity on the job, and reduce sunk cost associated with training for a career path that one ends up leaving. The potential gains here are hard to quantify, but plausibly spending 10 hours / week for 4 years (the equivalent of one full time year) learning about careers is better than working a minimum wage paying job, and has returns on the same order as those of entering the workforce as a college graduate one year early.

Those who wish to work during high school and who are also interested in charity can donate earnings to help those in the developing world. This doesn't create outsized economic value when measured in dollars, but if one instead measures economic value in percent increase in earnings per person, the impact can be outsized. In particular, donating $5k/year earnings from a $10/hr job to GiveDirectly could generate the equivalent of $150k/year in economic value. I doubt that GiveDirectly is this cost-effective, as historically favorable cost-effectiveness estimates have turned out to be overly optimistic, but there's at least a reasonable chance that one can contribute economic value many times greater than one's salary through such donations.

Those who are interested in contributing social value and who have specialized skills (or the capacity to develop them quickly) can leverage their specialized skills to do socially valuable projects. For example, somebody with high intellectual curiosity and good writing skills can contribute to Wikipedia, writing articles that thousands of people can benefit from. Here too, the benefits are difficult to quantify, but based on an aggregation of numerous case studies, it seems possible for people with specialized skills to contribute economic value several times greater than their earning power through working on well-chosen socially valuable projects.

The collection of paths listed above is probably not exhaustive. For example, it neglects the consumptive experience of the student in extracurricular activities, which probably varies substantially across activities.

What are students doing now, and what would they do if better informed?

Some extracurricular activities that are popular amongst high school students such as sports, music and drama have consumptive benefits that can't easily be substituted for by activities that produce greater economic value, and plausibly many high schoolers would be unwilling to give them up in favor of activities that produce more economic value. [Edit: After writing this post I realized that these lines carry the connotation that sports, music and drama have low social value. As ChristianKI points out, sports can improve productivity through exercise, and drama could improve social skills, on top of their consumptive value. The point here is just that there's probably not much room for change here, not that the status quo is bad.]

In other cases, there are more holistically rewarding activities that high schoolers might plausibly shift toward. For example, one may prefer to write an article online over one in a school newspaper, on the grounds that the former will reach a broader audience. One may prefer to learn computer programming over doing math contest problems, on the grounds that the former confers an employable skill.

The baseline figure of $250 billion/year coming from how people of high school age spend their time outside of school sufficiently high so that it's clear that the issue of how productively high school students spend their time is a major one, with small fractional increases yielding huge returns.

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Some extracurricular activities that are popular amongst high school students such as sports, music and drama have consumptive benefits that can't easily be substituted for by activities that produce greater economic value, and plausibly many high schoolers would be unwilling to give them up in favor of activities that produce more economic value.

I'm not certain that sport and drama provide bad extracurricular time. Physical activity is a good to be healthy and also to be mentally productive. Drama provides stage time which might be useful for social abilities like giving speeches.

The things that really provided bad return on investment are watching TV and playing computer games. Getting someone from playing computer games to computer programming is a massive shift.

I made a move from playing Warcraft 3 to playing Go because at the time I had the idea that Go is sort of more productive. Today I don't play go anymore but replaced it with dancing Salsa with provides much better returns.

When it comes to sports moving from tracks and fields to a martial art provides more value. The martial arts teaches confidence that's useful in social interaction.

The things that really provided bad return on investment are watching TV and playing computer games. Getting someone from playing computer games to computer programming is a massive shift.

Not sure about TV, but there's evidence that at least some games can have significant positive cognitive effects - most of the research is on FPSes IIRC. Still, programming is probably better for one's career prospects.

at least some games can have significant positive cognitive effects

'significant' as in 'our small underpowered experiments with bad controls had a particular test of a metric reach p<0.05' - or 'significant' as in 'passes a cost-benefit test'?

I strongly believe the former, strongly disbelieve the latter, and would even more strongly disbelieve a variant on the latter like '...cost-benefit test for college admission'.

(This sort of problem is a reason I have banned the pattern ' significan*' from my own writings with a lint script; if I mean the useless meaning, then I will write 'statistically-significant', and if I mean the useful meaning, then I will write 'large' or 'substantial' or 'important' or some more informative word like that.)

strongly disbelieve the latter

Given the very large variety of games and diversity of benefits, that position seems overly general.

There is also (as in diet studies) the "replacing what?" issue.

Given the very large variety of games and diversity of benefits, that position seems overly general.

I don't think so. I have been deeply unimpressed by the potential practical benefits of the video-game psych literature. They share all the weaknesses of, say, the n-back studies, without even the hope of improving useful things like WM or fluid intelligence.

There is also (as in diet studies) the "replacing what?" issue.

I am also fairly skeptical that video games substitute perfectly for, say, TV rather than reading or other more potentially useful forms of leisure, much less for periods of real effort. That would be awfully convenient, and doesn't tally with my own experience growing up where video games seemed to drain effort & productive time (even excluding extreme instances I've seen, like dropping out due to too much gaming).

I am also fairly skeptical that video games substitute perfectly for, say, TV rather than reading or other more potentially useful forms of leisure

I'm skeptical that typical fiction reading (ie easy popular stuff) is more beneficial than typical game-playing, except for the specific purpose of improving reading comprehension and speed (which are of course important things).

On a side note I'm also increasingly weary (and wary) of the notion that 8 hours of work isn't enough and that we need to be striving for "productivity" in our free time as well.

I'm skeptical that typical fiction reading (ie easy popular stuff) is more beneficial than typical game-playing, except for the specific purpose of improving reading comprehension and speed (which are of course important things).

Fiction has direct use for college applications and elsewhere: allusions, writing your own, doing better in literature courses, signaling intelligence etc.

Video games, on the other hand, offer no such benefits and signal 'I'm a loser'.

It's true that reading is important to learning to write better. Signalling benefits on the other hand are very context-dependent, and I'm more interested in more inherent properties. At any rate, both activities are likely to have diminishing returns and some mix is probably ideal.

Also I'd say merely playing games at all, as opposed to being as hardcore WoW player or something, only has mild negative connotations at worst these days, especially among younger people. In terms of social status, I'd bet that a 16 year old who spent all their time playing CoD online would have higher status among their peers than one who spent all their time reading Twilight, all else being equal.

You seem to really have a grudge against games?

edit: And to clarify, it's probably true that on the margin a lot of kids spend too much time playing games compared to homework or other activities.

It's true that reading is important to learning to write better. Signalling benefits on the other hand are very context-dependent, and I'm more interested in more inherent properties.

This is a college admissions article. If you're 'interested in more inherent properties', you're in the wrong place.

In terms of social status, I'd bet that a 16 year old who spent all their time playing CoD online would have higher status among their peers than one who spent all their time reading Twilight, all else being equal.

Do their peers work at Harvard?

You seem to really have a grudge against games?

I think people are desperately trying to justify their favorite recreation as beneficial, and this desperation starts with the citation of the brain-training literature and continues down the thread.

This is a college admissions article. If you're 'interested in more inherent properties', you're in the wrong place.

Well, I forgot what the OP was even about, this was more of a side-note. But I did play lots of videogames as a teen and still scored high enough to go to the (equal) best university in the country with a scholarship. (This is in Australia though and we don't have anything quite comparable to Harvard I guess.) And I suspect that making custom maps in Starcraft was a major reason why I took relatively naturally to programming when first exposed to it in university when even some of my otherwise-smarter peers struggled.

I think people are desperately trying to justify their favorite recreation as beneficial, and this desperation starts with the citation of the brain-training literature and continues down the thread.

I'm pretty certain play I personally play more games than is optimal (for most purposes), but I'm also pretty sure that playing games can be beneficial and that if someone doesn't play any at all they might benefit from doing so.

But I did play lots of videogames as a teen and still scored high enough to go to the (equal) best university in the country with a scholarship.

So?

And I suspect that making custom maps in Starcraft was a major reason why I took relatively naturally to programming when first exposed to it in university when even some of my otherwise-smarter peers struggled.

The Starcraft editor is not famous for being a terrific programming environment or good pedagogy. You're confusing cause and effect here, I think...

So?

Just trying to go back to the original topic - point is that playing games can't be that bad. Maybe I would have done just as well if I spent that time watching TV instead, but subjectively I feel like I did learn mental skills from gaming. Obviously this is hard to prove, but I don't think the common perception that gaming is completely worthless except as entertainment is actually true. I don't have any hard evidence in favour but most people who criticize games don't have any hard evidence against either - the only thing I've seen is that playing a large amount of games can harm school performance because it displaces homework, which is presumably true of any hobby taken to excess.

The Starcraft editor is not famous for being a terrific programming environment or good pedagogy. You're confusing cause and effect here, I think...

It's not a terrific programming environment but since it was a game I loved I was motivated to get over my initial frustrations (which were high), which might not have happened if I'd just idly tried some dry tutorial. Potentially specialized programming games could be better for this specific task, but I might never have picked up such a thing by myself (I was intimidated by the concept of programming at that age). You're right that the direction of causation isn't certain - the other way would be that I just happen to have the special programming sauce that isn't dependent on intelligence alone (the existence of which hasn't been ruled out yet AFAIK). At any rate I couldn't have learned the same thing just from reading books (which I also did a lot of back then) and certainly I wasn't about to go through SICP in my leisure time regardless.

Anyway this comment thread is way too deep and rambling so I'm just going to state a point succinctly and try to shut up:

Unlike many people, I don't believe that leisure reading is dominant over videogame playing in the sense that the optimal allocation for learning is 100% reading and 0% playing. (Focused learning can be more effective than both if the person has the energy and motivation to spare). As far I've seen there is no good hard evidence for or against this.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

In terms of social status, I'd bet that a 16 year old who spent all their time playing CoD online would have higher status among their peers than one who spent all their time reading Twilight, all else being equal.

I'd guess it also depends on their gender.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

Video games, on the other hand, offer no such benefits and signal 'I'm a loser'.

Some fiction signals pretty much the same, though I can't think any better example of that in English than Dan Brown's novels.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

On a side note I'm also increasingly weary (and wary) of the notion that 8 hours of work isn't enough and that we need to be striving for "productivity" in our free time as well.

This. Especially if you're in your teens.

I didn't read and don't really care about video-game psych studies. My impression is based on the observation that playing -- in general -- is a highly useful, probably indispensable, part of growing up. And it's not obvious to me that the mediation of a computer screen kills all the usefulness of play.

For an example, consider something like throwing a ten-year-old into an open gaming world (even if single-player, e.g. Skyrim). I have a pronounced impression that his intellectual facilities will get excellent exercise out of figuring how things work and what one can do with them. That's not something easily measurable and not something you'd ever find in a psych study -- but that doesn't mean the effect does not exit.

I am also fairly skeptical that video games substitute perfectly for, say, TV rather than reading or other more potentially useful forms of leisure

I don't know about perfection but many (non-obsessive) people game as relaxation, when they're tired and not in the mood for real effort. In many cases the computer game is replacing TV time. I have a strong opinion that playing computer games is better than watching TV (subject to the usual YMMV, of course).

I meant relatively large, not statistically significant. However the studies I read also didn't look that great in terms of size/reliability*. I do think it's a worthy avenue for future research and it seems to me that in principle it's possible for games to be more effective for some kinds of cognitive abilities than classroom learning for example.

* A while back I looked up a bunch with the idea of writing up a post on the results, but gave up because I wasn't clearly convinced.

My understanding is that various games can provide benefits such as ability to find relevant things in clutter, and reaction time, and decreasing the loss of mental function in the elderly. Other games could provide other benefits. However, if you consider that computer games could easily eat up all your free time plus some of your sleep, socialization, and homework time, and that alternate activities also have non-obvious benefits, this seems merely like a feel-good excuse. It's probably not as bad as watching certain television shows though.

I'm not certain that sport and drama provide bad extracurricular time. Physical activity is a good to be healthy and also to be mentally productive. Drama provides stage time which might be useful for social abilities like giving speeches.

Yes, these are good points, and the framing of my post wasn't quite right - I didn't mean "these activities aren't good uses of time, but students plausibly wouldn't be willing to shift toward more socially valuable ones" but rather "regardless of what the social value of these activities is, students plausibly wouldn't be willing to shift them."

Thanks for the other comments.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

The New Games movement was popular in the 1970s and early 1980s which sought to replace competitive sports with cooperative ones, and spectator sports with participatory ones. Stewart Brand created one of the first such games in the late 1960s, ironically called “Slaughter”, which involved two groups of people trying to push a large ball over the other side’s line in a sort of inverted tug-of-war, but with some on the winning side encouraged to switch to the losing side whenever it seemed like the ball was moving too far in one direction; this would supposedly teach cooperation over competition, and ensure a game in which there was heavy physical exertion but no winners or losers. The large ball was painted like the planet Earth. Brand’s motivation as described in the first New Games Book had a more obvious connection to the opposition to the Vietnam War, as a game like Slaughter would allow people to get in touch with their warlike impulses and get them out of their system while turning the tables on the nationalistic implications of conventional team sports by encouraging people to switch sides to make sure neither side could push the Earth over the edge. He also felt the peace movement was unhealthily out of touch with intense physical activity and needed some sports of their own.

I played a cooperative game in high school that I hadn't come across till then. It's much easier to recognise the game theoretic benefits in-game than readind Alice in Wonderland is hermeneutically interpreting lines like ''Everybody has won, and all must have prizes!" or picking up an economics textbook.

... You know what, in case any actual high school students are reading this:

Dont play this game - it is a tourney in which almost all participants are loosers - Are you likely to score a perfect SAT? No? Then the system wants to enslave you with chains of debt in the future and chains of bullshit in the present.

So, what you should do is avoid it. The cost of getting a college education in the US under the current system outweigh utterly any conceivable earnings you could possibly get during your high-school years, and are in fact quite problematic on a life-time basis.

Pick up a european language, get a student visa, get a degree in Berlin, Oslo, or some other city where there is a high-end relevant program for your interests. This is much cheaper. Heck, if you know where you want to go, finish high-school in that country - to avoid relocation shock on top of starting college.

Of course this does require you to meet the entry requirements for the course of study you desire, but it isn't like the US Ivy's are lenient on that front, and at least this way you wont be robbed blind.

If you are unwilling to move quite that far away from home to cheapskate your way through university, I suggest selling yourself to the armed forces instead of the banks. That contract at least has an expiry date.

I suggest selling yourself to the armed forces instead of the banks.

For the nerds who tend to hang around LW, I feel that this is a very VERY bad idea.

There are branches and specialties that value nerds; I wouldn't expect most of the people here to end up in infantry if they went that route. LW's cultural anti-authoritarianism might be a bigger problem -- and, of course, joining a service that often involves being stationed halfway around the world isn't that good an idea if your goal is to avoid moving halfway around the world.

Also, Fort Huachuca is one of the more miserable places I'm familiar with.

However, in many higher educations institution admissions do consider the extracurricular activities essential in creating the "well rounded student." For instance, medical school, requires the inclusion of not only science, but also research, arts, sports, etc. That's why there are so many of the "pre-med junkies" running around trying to everything.

The social value of creating this mindset for high school students for college is not completely "unproductive." It sounds good at first, having students think ahead in life, but in this time and age it's backfired. It's just the mere brainwashing of students to think quantity is better than quality, as they join as many extracurriculars as they can. As such one can see these students are probably the ones who have been pushed to become the future "pediatricians" of the world, since that's what everyone wants to be. Their effort to be well rounded has cost them the time to be better utilized in learning a valuable skill or another. En masse, I would have to say that they might encourage narrow prospects of only becoming doctors, rather than their intended meaning to broaden a world view.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

There are about 4 million students of a given age in America, so 16 million people of high school age, which corresponds to roughly 50 million in the developed world.

Yes, but not everything else you wrote applies to the developed world outside America. For example, 500 hours/week is a massive overestimate of the time the average stu

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