The diminishing value of school clubs

A deep dive into the club culture at Oak Park High School
The diminishing value of school clubs

Campus clubs are perhaps one of the best representations of the qualities that high school strives to engender in its students: curiosity, experimentation and growth. As students gather together, centered around common goals and interests, they learn not only about their peers, but themselves and the path they want to forge for their future. School clubs provide students with the opportunity to lead, collaborate with, educate and inspire their classmates; they catalyze friendships and bonds; they can incite change and initiative within the community. 

These very ideals inspire millions of students across the nation to explore, join and start clubs on their campus every year.

A similar scene is painted here at Oak Park High School during Club Week: a crowd of eager students navigate their way through packed rows of poster boards to sign up for a variety of different clubs. Excitement runs high as presidents passionately recruit new members, and successfully so. This year the average club recruited 42 members during club week and some high-interest clubs recruited over 100. 

But club enthusiasm quickly fades in the following months. When clubs materialize into meetings and actual work, members’ commitment to the cause seems to diminish. Intrigued by this phenomenon, I was inspired to investigate the inner workings of clubs at the high schools. I interviewed club leadership, sent out surveys and evaluated reports to gather comprehensive qualitative and quantitative data. My findings reinforced my original observations: OPHS’s club culture has become shallow. The question is, why? 

At the center of this issue lies the one constant factor that looms over every aspect of high school, and which threatens to taint the integrity of all the great qualities that clubs encourage: college applications. 

It is undeniable that for many, college applications drive the high school experience. Classes, sports and extracurricular activities are all selected to bolster a candidate as high achieving, versatile and dedicated — and clubs are no different. 

When almost every college application guide recommends a healthy dose of clubs for a “competitive applicant,” it can hardly be wondered why students feel pressured to assume leadership roles in a club or create positions to fill in the “gaps” of their applications. Students don’t shy away from admitting this either.

Upon entering one club meeting, I was kindly greeted by the president who then asked me if I was going to join. When I posed the question “Why?” she quickly responded, “For college apps.”

When speaking to another president about the motivations behind starting her club, she said that she had “made the club mainly to just put on college apps.”

Another president noted his struggle to find members with real passion. “It’s rare to see people join [clubs] because they’re actually interested,” he said. “I know a lot of people who try to cheat the system, cheat attendance and don’t really care about what we are trying to achieve. They just want to be able to say that they were part of the club.”

Several presidents I talked to, whose clubs were less successful, told me that many people had signed up during club week, but that few ever showed up for meetings. Even some board members would skip out on the meetings. 

In addition to first-hand accounts of this superficial sentiment, retention rates of both members and clubs themselves provide quantitative evidence:

  1. 24 of the 91 clubs from last school year returned this year, the other 67 failed to continue
  2. 86 of the 110 clubs were founded this year
  3. Over the course of quarter 1 alone, the average club lost 43% of its members
  4. The percentage of clubs who were checked for their ASB quarterly reports last year:
    1. Quarter 1: 73%
    2. Quarter 2: 38%
    3. Quarter 3: 9%

The low and declining retention rates point to a few connected conclusions: the majority of clubs at OPHS have short lifespans, members lose interest quickly and even some board members fail to exhibit commitment to the club and its purpose.

However, despite these general trends, there are several clubs who had high member retention rates, some even gained members as the quarter progressed. 

One president, whose club was particularly successful at recruiting new members, spoke about the strategies they used to achieve such high numbers.

“During club week people told us that they would only come if there was candy or food, so we felt pressured to give out those kinds of things at our meetings,” she said. “Once we started advertising that we had food at our meetings, people told their friends and then more and more people came.”

This occurrence is not irregular, many of the clubs with higher retention rates provide incentives at their meetings and publicly advertise this. When asked about why people joined their club, presidents ranked food as the second biggest motivator. 

For many, being part of a club means no more than showing up for pizza and signing an attendance sheet. At some point we must ask—of the 110 clubs, how many are working toward a common goal and how many are just the monthly lunch party with a fancy name?

Another occurrence that provides a window into the inner workings of OPHS club culture is the board selection process. 

Article IV, Section 3 of OPHS’ Club Packet states that “Club elections shall take place once club week has occurred.” During the first meetings, clubs are supposed to present their members with an election for all officer positions, president included. I would like to emphasize this: the members have to vote on who the officers will be. In other words, just because a student chooses to host a club does not automatically make them the president. This is additionally supported by the FCMAT’s ASB Manual where “elected students officers” are listed as a requirement for clubs.

Yet only 13% of club presidents reported being voted in, the others either automatically assumed the role or were chosen by previous leadership. A similar trend is found during board selection: over 70% of club presidents reported that their board was composed of their close friends; one club president told me that she “created co-positions to get more of [her] friends on the board.” 

Perhaps if the election process was followed more diligently during club creation, students may be deterred from starting a club for the sake of padding their resumes with leadership positions.

Nevertheless, it would be irresponsible to make a broad negative generalization about motivations and intentions of clubs, without noting those that make a genuine effort to bring their interests to the student body.

“The primary goal for us was to educate people about [our club],” one club president said. “Having to give food out at every meeting isn’t ideal, but it encourages people to come and learn and that’s what we really care about.” 

Another president noted the due diligence she took to ensure her board was passionate and committed to the cause. “We sent out an interest survey, and then talked to them [board candidates] because we wanted to make sure they were people who would actually do things for the club,” she said. “We had them give a speech and then left it to a vote.”

Another club, which I visited regularly, hosted meetings where the enthusiastic atmosphere and passion of the 20-25 members was evident as you stepped through the door. They created fun games, had guest speakers and hosted collaborative activities that brought members back to every meeting for more than a cookie. 

One club in particular which stands out among the rest is the grassroots club. They have hosted educational programs, set up events and remained dedicated to bringing awareness to issues they care about. Their commitment and leadership exemplify the amazing qualities that a club can engender and bring to a school.

But these groups are scarce in a sea of “shell” clubs whose inactivity is almost a mockery of the values that genuine clubs are built upon. And this is not to say that a club must hold large events or consist of volunteer work to have value to the student body. They can be light hearted and fun as well; but in addition to that they require an investment of time and energy that frankly many students in club leadership positions are unable or unwilling to give.

The integrity of campus clubs is being threatened by the overflow of students who see them as nothing more than another checkbox to mark or name to drop on applications. This issue of inauthentic clubs is part of a much larger problem that stems from the highly competitive nature of our academic environments. Students can hardly be blamed for this “obligation” they feel towards stacking their resumes with as many impressive activities as possible. But this pressure should not be an excuse to dilute what it means to run or be part of a club. 

We need to unlearn this toxic competitive mentality; we need to relearn that passion, hard work and integrity are far more appealing qualities than heaps of shallow extracurriculars. And we can start to achieve this by reestablishing what it means to be a club.

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