Equity Issues in Education

Summer Program Needs Not Being Met, Especially for Low-Income Families

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already serious problem for families, in particular low-income families: access to structured summer programs.

According to new research commissioned by the Afterschool Alliance and conducted by Edge Research, participation in summer programs had been growing, with 47% of families reporting at least one member of their family participating in any type of summer program, up from 33% in 2013 and 25% in 2008. However, the pandemic interrupted that growth, and participation fell to 34% (close to 2013’s levels), but with many participating virtually. The report, America After 3PM: Time for a Game-Changing Summer, was based on responses from 29,595 households, with a total of 53,287 children.

According to research, even with the growth in 2019, the numbers were concerning. Why? Although 12.6 million K–12 students participated in a “structured summer experience” that year — defined as “a summer learning program, sports program, summer camp, summer school, or summer job or internship,” but not child care — another 13.9 million who wanted to participate were unable to. That’s about one in three children who did not participate in a structured summer program.

Opportunities are not meeting demand, in particular for low-income families.

According to the report: “Higher income children are nearly three times more likely to participate in a structured summer experience than children from lower income families; 9.2 million higher income children compared to 3.3 million low-income children. Approximately 3 in 4 children who were in a structured summer experience were from higher income families (74 percent), compared to 1 in 4 children from families with low incomes (26 percent).”

Further, according to the report’s authors: “Comparing trend data at the household level, although the percentage of families with low incomes reporting that their child took part in a summer program increased slightly between 2013 and 2019 (from 34 percent to 38 percent), the percentage of families with higher incomes with a child in a summer program saw much greater growth during the same time period, jumping from 33 percent to 53 percent.”

The cost of these programs was by far the leading reason low-income families did not enroll their children in a program. Overall, 39% of all respondents, regardless of income, reported cost as a reason for not enrolling their children. That tied with “having other plans for the summer” among all survey respondents.

Some other barriers for low-income families:

  • Transportation, cited by 23% of low-income respondents;

  • Not knowing about program availability (23%); and

  • Summer programs not available in their community (15%).

Between low-income and high-income families, there was a great disparity in the priorities for attending summer programs. According go the report: “Low-income parents place a greater emphasis on reducing risky behaviors (23 percentage point difference), snacks and meals (21 percentage point difference), helping prevent their child from losing academic ground (14 percentage point difference), and helping build life skills (13 percentage point difference), as well as a variety of activities (12 percentage point difference), music or arts (11 percentage point difference), and STEM learning opportunities (10 percentage point difference).”

Meanwhile, 88% of respondents indicated they support public funding for summer programs for those with few opportunities. That’s up from 85% support in 2014 and 83% in 2009.

The complete report, Time for a Game-Changing Summer, and a dashboard containing highlights can be found at afterschoolalliance.org/AA3PM.

About the Author

David Nagel is editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Technology Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal and STEAM Universe. A 25-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEJournalDave (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).


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