First Generation Students in College Athletics

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Sport is commonly seen as the great equalizer. Many have heard stories of players who came from pobverty only to achieve fame and fortune through their sports participation. In other cases, college athletics are cast as activities that offer athletes the chance to earn a college degree and climb the social ladder.

For its part, the NCAA promotes this storyline. During basketball tournaments each spring, the organization runs commercials highlighting athletes who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Despite these narratives, the facts paint a different picture. Tom Farrey, from the Aspen Institute, showed that fewer than one in five college basketball players are the first in their family to go to college. When looking at all college sports, the figures drop to one in seven.

Further analysis of the data show the number are dropping. The biggest declines are observed in sports that have traditionally had a number of first generation students. These include men’s and women’s basketball, and football.

How do these figures on par with college students, overall?  Interestingly, college athletes are less likely than their peers on campus to be first generation students. Put another way, college athletes are more likely than the average college student to come from an advantaged background.

Farrey points to several potential causes for this trend. They include rising academic standards, the increased cost of youth sport activities, and a growing Black middle class that can afford the high costs of youth sport.

In all, Farrey’s analysis shows that, increasingly, sports are for people who have means and come from educated households. What was once an activity for all is increasingly one that excludes certain people, including those from first generation households.