Racing to a Degree
High school sports help girls earn college diplomas
"It keeps you grounded, puts you in a situation that keeps you out of trouble, and puts you with a group that has the same mind-set," says Molly Skinner, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, appraising the nonathletic benefits she experienced while playing soccer in high school. According to one new study, suiting up for the high school team does seem to give girls a boost when it comes to getting a college diploma.
The recent study, conducted by professors from Brigham Young University and West Chester University of Pennsylvania, found that women who played sports in high school were 73 percent more likely to earn a bachelor's degree within six years of graduating from high school than those who did not. (The study did not look at male athletes.) Their analysis of data from 5,103 women collected as part of a U.S. Department of Education study found that even among girls who face statistical challenges finishing college based on socioeconomic background, the athletes still had more than 40 percent higher college completion rates than nonathletes, regardless of whether they played at the college level.
"In times when we worry about improving academic performance or outcomes, we wonder should we be devoting time and money to extracurricular activities?" asks BYU Prof. Mikaela Dufur, one of the study's authors. "These are important arenas forin our casegirls to make connections with others and adults who help encourage them to succeed."
Balance. At the collegiate level, though, the measure of women's sports remains as murky as ever, thanks to the politics of Title IX. Enacted in 1972, Title IX guarantees women equal opportunity in collegiate sports, but its critics contend that many schools reach that balance by cutting men's teams rather than adding women's. A July report on Title IX from the Government Accountability Office has done little to settle the debate. That study found increases in student participation in college athletics on both sides of the gender line, though the growth rate was higher for women's teams and female athletes.
Title IX critics say that the GAO report relies too heavily on National Collegiate Athletic Association data, which can obscure the number of men's teams cut from particular schools as more colleges join the NCAA overall. "What the GAO report is papering over is ... athletic dreams that are being dashed by the Title IX gender quota," says Jim McCarthy, spokesman for the College Sports Council, a coalition of coaches, parents, and athletes, "working for Title IX reform."
While the political debate continues, female athletes themselves seem to be focusing on the finish line. "I think that [sports] teaches you to persevere," says Virginia Tech-bound Rachel Plumb, who raced on her high school's cross country team. "It teaches you to keep an eye on a goal."
This story appears in the August 6, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.