Participating in sports can seriously help a student’s academics
Yellow buses are returning to the streets. Target is aggressively hawking gel pens. Alice Cooper is crying. School is back—and with it, interscholastic sports. It’s an American tradition that dates back to the 1920s, when the “comprehensive high school” model became standard, championed by education reformers who argued high school sports instilled “ethical character” and fostered “useful school citizen[s].”
We still hear versions of this argument today, that extracurricular activities, especially sports, are essential to the educational experience. Organizations like the NCAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations often go even further, claiming student-athletes experience more success than their non-athlete peers. Until recently however, there was only mild evidence to support the case, as most studies are extremely limited in scale by student privacy laws.
Eight years ago, Angela Lumpkin set out to find evidence. Lumpkin, who coached University of North Carolina’s women’s basketball in the 1970s, at the time was a professor at the University of Kansas, living in Lawrence. Through some bureaucratic schmoozing, she acquired high school data for the entire state of Kansas. In 2012, she published a study showing that, across gender, Kansas high school athletes attend class, earn GPAs of 3.5 or greater, and graduate at a higher rate than non-athletes. This marked the first statewide study of its kind. Last year, Lumpkin published a second study showing athletes also perform better on state assessment tests.
Kansas is smaller and more rural than most states, so Lumpkin’s data has its own limitations, but it’s still meaningful. Public school funding has plummeted since the recession, with interscholastic sports often in the crossfire. Research like this arms administrators, politicians, and organizers with tools for promoting the continued investment in sports programs. When Lumpkin first shared her results with the Kansas state official who helped her acquire the data, “He was turning cartwheels in Topeka,” she says. “He wanted to share it with executive directors throughout the nation.”