Does Participation in High School Sports Predict Long Term Outcomes?

In a recently published paper, Do High School Sports Build or Reveal Character?, Michael and Tyler Ransom attempt to determine what, if any, benefits are bestowed on individuals who play High School athletics. With nearly 56% of students participating in sports, the authors wanted to determine if there was a link to later life outcomes such as attending college, earning higher wages, or labor market participating.

LRN Media interviewed Tyler Ransom to learn more about this research and implications:

[LRN Media]: What motivated this research?
[Tyler Ransom]: We got interested in this research by thinking about how one’s experiences in youth affect one’s future outcomes. I had been working on research analyzing whether or not working while in high school has a positive effect on future wages. The question of whether or not participating in athletics while in high school has a similar effect was a natural extension to this.

[LRN Media]: What did you want to understand?
[Tyler Ransom]: We wanted to understand if participating in high school sports increases students’ future educational and labor market outcomes (for example, if being an athlete leads to an increased likelihood of graduating college, or increases one’s earnings). The difficulty here is that those who are athletes are not randomly assigned to be athletes, so one cannot simply look at the outcomes of athletes and non-athletes and be able to say anything about the effect of sports participation. The reason for this is that athletes and non-athletes are not an “apples to apples” comparison. One needs to know what the future earnings of non-athletes would have been if they had been athletes.

[LRN Media]: How did you study it?
[Tyler Ransom]: We studied our question by pooling three different nationally representative American survey data sets. These surveyed those who were in high school in three different decades: the late 1970s, the late 1980s, and the late 1990s. To understand the question we were interested in (i.e. is there a causal effect of sports on future education/earnings?), we employed recently developed statistical techniques that allow us to make an “apples to apples” comparison between the athletes and the non-athletes.

[LRN Media]: What was your main finding?
[Tyler Ransom]: Our main finding is that there is no effect of sports on future education or earnings. If one tries to compare athletes and non-athletes in the wrong way (i.e. “apples to oranges”), one would conclude that being an athlete is a good idea. But once we make the appropriate correction — that is, compare “apples to apples” — we find that the effect vanishes. As a side note, we also examined whether there is an effect of athletics on later-life exercise habits. We do find that athletes are more likely to exercise regularly (i.e. 3x per week), even when doing the apples-to-apples comparison.

[LRN Media]: Why is the research important?
[Tyler Ransom]: This research is important because it sheds light on the value of high school sports to individual students. A lot of school district funding goes to supporting athletic programs, and the conventional wisdom is that athletic participation helps students build skills such as leadership, teamwork, and the like. We find that that is not the case. Athletics may still have a place in high school to the extent that these programs build social ties among students or give students something to do after school. But we don’t find any evidence that it benefits individual athletes in terms of their economic outcomes as adults.

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