Public spending on high school athletics has grown extreme, exemplified by a public school in Allen, Texas that built a $60 million football stadium in 2011. Equipped with a three-dimensional scoreboard and an 18,000 seating capacity, this is not the most expensive in Texas, according to The Center for Education Policy and Development. 

So I wondered, why do high schools spend so much time and money on sports? Is it a good thing for school? What I discovered is that the only reason to be in school is to win at the testing game. Because school is about curriculum and tests. But there is one way around that game, and that is athletics.

Sports get you into college
Most kids who have a passion outside of high school, and are outstanding at that passion, are homeschooling. But this is not true with sports. You can be passionate about sports and your school will fund it, and encourage it. And sports can get you into college pretty much as well as academics can.

The amount of money going toward sports scholarships is growing faster than inflation, and sports have distorted the admissions process even at highly selective colleges that don’t have athletic scholarships. Recruited athletes are four times as likely to gain admission over a student with similar academic credentials.

Sports are the best predictor of high wages
Students who play a varsity sport in college are so likely to do well in their work life that there are recruiting firms that specialize in athletes. And pharmaceutical companies are notorious for recruiting cheerleaders out of college because they are great salespeople. John Barron writes in The Review of Economics and Statistics, that wages are 15% higher if someone does sports as an extracurricular in high school.

Expensive sports are a great way to buy academic credentials
Rich parents want to buy academic credentials for their kids but it’s elusive. If you get a kid on patrician sports like sailing, polo, lacrosse, and fencing they have a relatively weak competition but the teams have to be filled in elite schools the same as baseball, football and soccer, according to education professor Tim Stewart, writing in the US-China Education Review.

The US is the only country that combines sports and education. Most countries have clubs, and leagues and private coaches. The argument for separating the two is propelled by estimates that more than $50 million in high school spending would be diverted away from athletics and over to academics.

But this is a hard argument to make when it’s so clear that participation on athletic team or in a league paves the way for a lot of success in adult life.

The classic complaint against overspending on sports at the expense of academics ignores the reality that sports is providing essential learning that test-based schooling doesn’t and can’t provide. So, in a society where we herd kids to school, make them memorize stuff they don’t care about, and then push them into six-figure debt for school—spending education funding on high school sports makes a lot of sense. If you have a choice between academics and sport, focusing on sports is a better way to meet the goals that school lays out for students. It’s more fun, more lucrative, and a more certain path to college than getting good grades.

It’s not just $60 million dollar football stadiums for high school. More than 50% of of high school principals in the Midwest are former football coaches. Because our schools have a value system that makes these sort of statistics make sense.

But these benefits may be short lived. Kathleen DeBoer, executive director of the American Volleyball Association, shows a trend to use private clubs and coaches instead of those at the public school. And Forbes reports the same thing is happening in high school soccer.

When parents perceive there is a lot at stake, when parents want their kids to be able to follow their passion, they start taking their kids out of school. And the result with sports is the same as when parents take anything else into their own hands: their kids do better.

29 replies
  1. JT
    JT says:

    It’s really not that hard to get into college anyway. Most kids with decent grades can easily do so. I can’t see pushing a sport like sailing or polo just to “get into college.” They can do so anyway.

    Anyway, isn’t that just what you say public schools are doing–pushing kids to learn something they are not interested in?

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      “Force your kids to do something they don’t want to so you can send them somewhere they don’t need to go… but with homeschooling!”

      It is an amusing argument, given the history of this blog, but there’s a strange consistency. As you know, P argues elsewhere repeatedly that you shouldn’t send our kids to college, because it’s a waste of time and money. You have to squint a lot to see the connection, but I think it goes like this: college is a waste of their time, so they might as well be athletes and not waste money too.

      Anyway… I find the obsession with sports scholarships quite odd. I see some folks spending five figures per year on their kids’ sports. Seriously. There’s a kind of math lesson in there: if you’re spending 10K a year, starting in kindergarten, what’s the cumulative future value in college tuition? (Hint: you don’t break even with a full scholarship).

      As far as the difficulty of admissions, I used to teach at the college level, and most of the athletes I had in my classes were just quasi-students barely scraping by academically despite a full court press of tutors and the lightest classes possible. It’s quite true what P says that these kids wouldn’t have gotten into college without the sports!

      Here’s where I can find some agreement: if your kid is an athlete, you might as well go all in on their strengths, and you can do that better homeschooling. But give up on the ivies, because they’re not allowed to give athletic scholarships.

      • Tracey
        Tracey says:

        I also found this blogpost humorous. Sports are WONDERFUL and FANTASTIC…unless you have a well-balanced kid, or even (god forbid!) an academic one. As a kid and a teen, I spent hours and hours of my free time surfing and roller skating and riding horses and climbing trees. Physical activity in school was a horror show for me; rushing to get changed into ridiculous-fitting shorts and shirt to stand around in a gym watching the three superstars get all the teacher’s attention. All I learned in school was how much I hated gym…and seriously, once you’re an adult, how much time are you going to spend standing around a basketball court or a baseball diamond having to feign interest?

    • mh
      mh says:

      Bah. “College” as a concept, except for the top-tier prestige colleges and universities, will transform/dissolve in the next 10 years. “College” as a time period when a young adult routinely goes away to live at the expense of his or her parents for four-plus years while dabbling at life… those days will probably cease to exist.

      But sports will always be worthwhile, because of the life lessons they impart.

      Women who have not participated in sports make the worst bosses, in my experience.

      Well, backtrack on that. Women with a military background can make up for the absence of sports through the leadership they develop in the military.

      • Commenter
        Commenter says:

        Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Universities have been around far longer than our nation, far longer than the industrial revolution, far longer than capitalism. The oldest universities in continuous existence are almost a thousand years old (Bologna 1088), and many more, public and private, are hundreds of years old (UNC 1795). To claim that these institutions will cease to exist someday is unremarkable; to claim that this will happen all at once in the next ten years is extraordinary.

        I believe it is more likely that universities will, gradually over the next few decades, revert to their historical function, which is education of a small group of elites. In the past few decades, they have deviated from this historical function to the point where a principal at an inner-city elementary school may declare: “All our children will go to college.” Such an endeavor is obviously headed for failure, as well as great and unsustainable debt, as our economy does not require all those students to be so educated. Nobody needs a BA to work in retail or food service, and those in retail and food service will never repay the cost of their college education. This failure will undoubtedly take many institutions down with it, and may cause our nation’s next great financial crisis.

        However, the period of going away to college, at least for the same historical minority of students who have traditionally gone away to college, will not cease to exist any year soon, and for the same reason that telecommuting will not replace the office.

        Some people will telecommute for work, and some people will attend classes or gain educational certifications entirely online. However, for a substantial proportion of those working and those attending college, this will continue to be done in person and face to face no matter how nice ‘virtual presence’ will come to look.

        A huge part of the importance of college, as well as the workplace, is networking, aided by chance encounters and conversations with people outside your silo. Google recognizes the importance of this serendipitous interaction, and designs its “campuses” around it. The model they are consciously following is that of the university, and imagining they will continue to do this while the university itself will stop is illogical.

        • mh
          mh says:

          commenter, I agree with you entirely.

          College will revert to an elite institution, and a new idea will emerge for preparing young adults.

          • Commenter
            Commenter says:

            We’ll see increased popularity of different ways of preparing most young adults, but not all of them. Right now about 60% of high school students go on to college (far fewer graduate). That’s triple or quadruple the proportion going to college before WWII. I could easily see traditional college going back down to 25% or even 20% of young adults over the next couple of decades, with non-campus systems taking up the slack.

            Of course, all of the top jobs will go to that 20-25%, same as today. McKinsey isn’t going to hire someone who has a virtual degree, and nobody with a MOOC certificate is going to become a supreme court justice. But that qualification you will need to be someone’s spreadsheet monkey or lower management won’t have to be a campus degree.

  2. karelys
    karelys says:

    I was wondering about that with sports. A while ago I tutored a lawyer’s kid who was a part of a soccer club outside of school. This club was NOT like the school soccer team. They were serious, they were committed, they had good resources, and they were paying good money for it.

    I was wondering if recruiters came to watch those matches.

    The topic wasn’t all that relevant to me at the time so I didn’t really investigate it. But now it makes sense.

    • lyndap
      lyndap says:

      It’s becoming more common to be looked at by colleges through club/travel teams. But beware of burnout. Some of these kids have harsher schedules than pros…they play year round, with little time off and are prone to repetitive use injuries. That’s where mom and dad need to step-in and keep things sane.

      Unfortunately for my wallet, one of my sons enjoys freeride, slope-style skiing and I don’t think there’s any opportunity for college scholarships for that…yet.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        Maybe he can start figuring out how to put his skills to make money to fund his interest. Two birds with one stone.

        Or maybe more birds.

        • Lyndap
          Lyndap says:

          Funny you should mention how to put his skills to work to make money. He wants to travel the “Powder Highway” in BC Canada in an RV with his dog, “Jack” the Jack Russell while homeschooling on the road and making a web show called “Desperately Seeking Powder” and a documentary called “The Year of Schooling Dangerously”. Problem is he can’t drive yet, so Mom/Dad would have to be the drivers. Now if only we could figure out how to fund it. I guess that’s why “Kickstarter” was invented.

  3. Amy
    Amy says:

    Penelope! I’m so surprised you’ve failed to mention tennis as an elite and expensive sport! Tennis has long been my plan to get my potential future daughters in to college, either in a D1 or D2 school. I hope to utilize Title 9 and the fact that no one in the U.S. cares about it (except the Indian and Chinese kids and a few elite whites who have caught on. Surprisingly, though, I haven’t seen quite as many Indians at the collegiate level as I would have expected, probably because their parents want them to become doctors and engineers over the business/humanities subjects many tennis players do in college).

    At Big 10 colleges right now, the vast majority of tennis players (both women’s AND men’s) are Eastern European/Russian (Czech, Slovenian, Ukranian, Belarussian), other European (Spanish/French), and South American (Brazilian, Colombian, etc.)

    These kids fill up spots because tennis isn’t big enough in the U.S. for enough children to be good enough at it to play in college. They get a close to free ride in a U.S. college – a good deal in my book.

    None of this is to mention how very educational and good for one’s personal formation tennis is. The sport is all about etiquette, and the mathematical/dog eat dog nature of singles tennis teaches one about logic/angles (seriously, it’s similar to chess), sportsmanship, how to remain calm under intense pressure, etc.) In short, the game is rife with high-end life lessons.

    Tennis! It’s all about the tennis! I don’t like her, but it’s the only sport Anna Wintour watches. Why? Well, because it’s the coolest and most refined – in my opinion football is kind of a waste of a sport – a child’s chances of getting a scholarship are low, it’s not really a “smart” game, and no one outside the U.S. really gives a damn about it. Tennis is where it’s AT!!!

  4. mh
    mh says:

    In our area, it is common for children in two sports to homeschool:

    Dance
    Horseback Riding/Horsemanship/Horseyness

    (These are mostly girls pursuing these sports)

    These homeschool moms tell me their girls can easily manage the couple of hours of “school-type” currciculum each day, and they are motivated to do it fast (and sweetly, without grumbling)because then they get HOURS of uninterrupted time at the dance studio/stables with the attention of the staff.

    It’s a pretty good deal for these homeschoolers.

    Most public schools don’t have a dance department or a horse department…

    And in the past month, I have heard two mothers of hockey boys say they were leaving school next year for more day-time time on the ice, time before the rest of the school kids crowd in.

    I imagine swim is not far behind. Soon, most athletes will homeschool for the competitive edge.

    • lyndap
      lyndap says:

      We know a lot of skiers and snowboards that homeschool. During the winter, they travel a lot and need time on the mtn during the week.

    • Alison
      Alison says:

      We pulled my swimmer out of school this year (for other reasons, but it is a bonus considering how demanding swimming is on their schedules). His brother, the REALLY good swimmer will be home in the fall…

    • mh
      mh says:

      The word “equestrian” just popped into my mind.

      “Horseback Riding/Horsemanship/Horseyness” Doh!

  5. Loren Fogelman
    Loren Fogelman says:

    There’s definitely a difference between school teams and travel clubs. Take these important elements into consideration before you go for a sports scholarship track.

    The first is your child’s level of commitment. If they’re not fully committed to their sport then it’s likely they’ll quit once it stops being fun.

    What’s their motivation? Most of the student athletes I work with play their sport because they love it. But some play because it’s expected of them.

    And not all coaches are created equal. Here’s where you want to really be selective. The best coaches realize they’re helping prepare their athletes for the future, as they transition from children to adults.

  6. JT
    JT says:

    Take your kids out of school so they’ll have a better chance of getting into school?

    Anyhow, I thought college was a waste of time. This blog is sometimes inconsistent.

  7. Redrock
    Redrock says:

    I am not sure I understand: why is it better to push kids to excel in sports then to excel in academic subjects like math or languages? Any sport is an endless series of tests -each game, each try-out, many practices are tests. Equally taxing as testing in an academic subject.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Study after study shows that kids who participate in sports are more successful at adult life — make more money, have better social skills, etc.

      And study after study shows that being good at academics does not improve one’s life at all unless you can get into a top-ten college. (My favorite example of this is the long-term study of Harvard undergrads published in the Atlantic.)

      So I’d way rather have a kid who is great at sports than a kid who is great at academics.

      Penelope

      • JT
        JT says:

        I wouldn’t write off academics so quickly. It is the academics who invented that smart phone you use, and who created the medicines that keep us healthy. Sports are nice, in their place, but I’d far rather have an intellectually curious child who finds the world an interesting place to explore.

        • redrock
          redrock says:

          the question is also at least somewhat about the difference between “participating” in sports, or “excelling” in sports. Participating in sports is great, and all kids should be able to find a sport or physical activity they enjoy – I have no doubt that this makes happier people. But once the sport becomes competitive, the time investment required to truly excel and reach the level of a sports scholarship is a whole different game. Which begs the question: if a kid is really superb at his/her sport of choice – why go to college? Why not focus on not just becoming a pro, but also coaching, or some entrepreneurial activity related to the sport? College seems to be obsolete for those athletes unless they go to a non-ivy league place for the collegiate competition. But again, that would defeat the idea of only the top 10 ivies being worth to attend ….

  8. Susie
    Susie says:

    How about a music scholarship in viola or French horn?

    There are FAR too many kids playing soccer to count on any kind of soccer scholarship. And I’m not interested in driving up and down the interstate every weekend.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I love the viola example because there is so much written about how kids only move from violin to the viola when they realize they can’t get a scholarship for violin.

      Penelope

      • lyndap
        lyndap says:

        Also, if they want to play in an orchestra, they have a better chance of getting a position if they play the viola instead of violin.

  9. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    I am homeschooling my athlete (gymnast) as well as her siblings. We love the flexibility for her to train/compete at the level she desires while securing the best education possible. Unfortunately, it is becoming more difficult for student athletes to maintain NCAA accreditation of their home school programs. This may force athletes in many training-intense fields to choose between excelling in their sport and competing in college.

  10. ntjpc
    ntjpc says:

    I am of the belief that High School sports will actually decrease in the future and be replaced by independent clubs. You are seeing that already with the more expensive sports like gymnastics. In Indiana, there were fewer than 12 high school gymnastics teams a few years ago. Our school dropped the team because it was too expensive to maintain the equipment, insurance for falls, and travel to compete against other teams.
    As the discussion about concussions heats up, you could see the same thing happen to football and soccer. The liability insurance will make having those sports be prohibitively expensive.
    If you have an elite high school aged athlete in any sport, you are best to either home school the student and join a club team, or go to high school, but compete on a club team. You will get much more attention from colleges and the pro’s competing in tournaments not related to school teams.
    The best athlete to ever attend your old high school graduated a few years ago. He is playing professional hockey today. He never played for the NT hockey team even though the hockey team is an annual contender and regularly wins the state trophy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Moore_(ice_hockey) .

    • JH
      JH says:

      The number one free ride skier in the world is from Indiana, and was homeschooled. Nick Goepper, 19, is the only skier to win back to back X-Games in ten years. He’s favored for a gold at Sochi. Great kid.

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