Girls who don a sports uniform in high school are more likely to eventually sport a collegiate cap and gown, a conclusion based on a new Brigham Young University study about the playing field and classroom dynamic.
Playing on a high school team increases young women’s odds of graduating from college by 41 percent, according to recent BYU grad Kelly Troutman and her mentor, sociology professor Mikaela Dufur, who report their research in the new issue of the journal Youth & Society.
“If the goal is for girls to get a higher education, our findings favor the idea of girls playing high school sports,” said Dufur, who played in the marching band but did not play on any sports teams in high school. “Not only are girls good for sports, sports are good for girls.”
Beckett Broh, a sociologist at Wittenberg University in Ohio who is not affiliated with the BYU research, concluded in a 2002 study that athletics help students’ academic performance during high school more than any other extracurricular activity. Broh said school administrators facing tight budgets should take the new BYU study into consideration before putting an athletic program on the chopping block for the sake of cutting costs.
“This is pretty powerful evidence that interscholastic sports are worthy of our education dollars,” said Broh. “This is one of the first few studies that have done a really careful look at long-term benefits of sports.”
Troutman and Dufur analyzed a sample of 5,000 female students from the high school class of 1992 who were randomly selected to participate in the National Education Longitudinal Study. Those students, both athletes and non-athletes, completed surveys in 8th grade, 10th grade and 12th grade. Six years after finishing high school, the participants completed a final survey that included questions about post-high school education.
The statistical analysis accounted for other potential factors that could also influence educational attainment, including parents’ education, family income, type of school, student expectations, family size, race, high school test scores, college grades and whether the student continued their athletic career at college. Controlling for those effects, the researchers still found that women with high school sports experience had better success earning a 4-year college degree.
As a former soccer and softball player at her high school, Troutman hopes this research corrects the misconception that sports teams only distract students from class work.
“The assumption is that athletics are detrimental to academics,” Troutman said. “To a certain level, academics and sports are complementary.”
While an undergraduate at BYU, Troutman came across research that indicated sports benefit girls more than boys in the short-run in terms of mental health, self-confidence and academic achievement. The lack of information about long-term benefits for girls gave Troutman a research idea that she submitted in her capstone class for sociology majors. With encouragement and mentoring from Dufur, Troutman turned that idea into a master’s thesis and the Youth & Society paper, which they titled “From High School Jocks to College Grads.”
Troutman now teaches at West Chester University of Pennsylvania and is applying to Ph.D. programs in sociology. Dufur plans as a next step to make sport-by-sport comparisons and investigate whether intensity of participation plays a role.