What impacts a student’s odds of becoming a college athlete?

Talent alone doesn’t determine a student’s chance of becoming a college athlete. Socioeconomic status and community resources also are contributing factors, according to new research featured in The Conversation.

Calling the comprehensive study the first of its kind, researchers say they analyzed data from 7,810 students, at least half of whom played sports as of 10th grade in 2002. Researchers tracked students’ athletics participation across time, as well as data on their socioeconomic status and school environment.

They found that, among students who were varsity athletes in their senior year of high school, 23 percent from the most well-off households went on to become college athletes, compared to 9 percent from the lowest-income families.

“A privileged background helps students succeed in sports just as it does in other parts of life,” James Tompsett, a co-author of the study, told Ohio State News. “The idea of sports as a true meritocracy where the best athletes on the field will succeed is largely a myth,” he added.

Community, family resources shift the equation

Wealthier communities have greater access to recreational activities and facilities, which promote participation in sports at an early age. Niche sports like rowing or fencing are more likely accessible in affluent neighborhoods and can provide greater chances of standing out to certain colleges and their sports programs.

Among the 47 college athletes who were also interviewed for the study, 94 percent shared that they had been playing sports since kindergarten, and 77 percent had played on club teams that cost thousands of dollars a year. Almost 80 percent had played sports at least five days per week in high school—an investment of money and time potentially out of reach for low-income students with competing job and household responsibilities.

Being “situated in a more optimal school environment” with an array of school-sponsored sports and strong college-going expectations also increased students’ chances of playing sports in college, Chris Knoester, an associate sociology professor at Ohio State University and co-author of the study, notes. Researchers say students’ odds of becoming a college athlete were cut in half if they attended a school where 75 percent or more of the student body qualified for free or reduced lunch.

The study authors conclude by recommending community-level efforts to promote a more inclusive approach. “A sports-for-all, play-for-life ethic,” they write, “…can help make sure that sports are more inclusive, athletic talent is nurtured, and that the benefits of sports participation are provided to more people throughout their lives.”

Related: More colleges offering esports scholarships—but overwhelmingly to men >

Topics in this story

Next Up

Two-year colleges ramp up off-campus outreach

Looking to offset enrollment declines, address student needs, and build local relationships, two-year colleges are establishing off-campus “community classrooms.”

Read