Good Sports

Doctoral research examines the peer effects of high school athletics

In contrast to “dumb-jock” stereotypes, research from disciplines as varied as sociology, health sciences and economics has shown a positive correlation between high school sports participation and academic success.

The bottom line: On average, students who play sports tend to get better grades in high school than those who don’t.

But what about student-athletes who fall below the average, statistically or otherwise? That’s the question at the heart of Krannert doctoral student Katie Schultz’s research, which examines the peer effects of high school sports participation.

Schultz, a PhD candidate in economics who participated in team sports at both the high school and collegiate levels, says student athletes are a unique set of peers.

“Being an athlete puts students in a particular reference group within the school, one that is known by the entire student body,” she says. “Individuals are associated with a particular sport and with the athletes on a particular team.

Katie Schultz

Katie Schultz (Photo by Kris Knotts)

“If some teammates tend to be poor students and to care very little about education, it may drag down the performance of other individuals on the team. Conversely, if other peers on a team have stronger academic abilities, it may motivate student athletes with lower abilities to improve their individual academic performance.”

Because most of the empirical research on sports participation focuses on direct effects rather than peers effects, Schultz collected information from local high schools to build her own data set.

“Traditional estimates of direct sports participation effects may be biased by the exclusion of peer group effects,” she says. “More accurate estimations could provide justification for maintaining sports programs in schools as well as other policy recommendations.”

At most schools, for example, students must meet minimum GPA requirements to participate in sports. Low-ability students may benefit more from such policies than high-ability students because sports may be their primary incentive for completing high school, Schultz says. In contrast, high-ability students may maintain their grades independent of whether sports are offered by their high school.

“Schools may be able to take advantage of social multipliers that are unique to the peer effects of sports participation and help improve the academic performance of all students on a team,” she says.

Schultz, who has been recognized for her teaching, also uses her research in the classroom.

“It complements my teaching because I can share with students an area of economics they may not be aware of,” she says. “I can show them how to apply economic tools to virtually any area of interest, just as I’ve used economics to study peer effects on sports teams.”