Common Majors Among Athletes

My news feed linked to the article at Why do athletes choose social sciences over STEM? We looked at the numbers. - The Princetonian that compares major choices among athletes to non-athletes at Princeton. Athletes were far more likely to major in social sciences and less likely to major in almost anything else including sciences, engineering, and humanities. Some specific numbers are below:

58% of athletes major in social sciences fields
30% of non-athletes major in social sciences fields

19% of athletes major in economics
8% of non-athletes major in economics

The majors with the largest degree of overrepresentation among athletes are below. Note that several of these have ample size issues. Economics and politics have a large enough sample size to more reliable.

  1. Geosciences
  2. Politics
  3. Economics
  4. Sociology
  5. Near Eastern Studies
  6. Religion

Athletes being overrepresented among economics and political science majors is nothing new. Nearly all highly selective, private colleges that track athlete vs non-athlete major distribution report the same. It’s also not necessarily an effect of playing the sport, as a similar pattern occurs among surveys of incoming freshman. Athletes seem far more likely to plan on majoring in economics as entering students. For example in the most recent Harvard freshman survey reports the following, with an even more severe degree of overrepresentation than occurred at Princeton. It might suggest that more athletes plan on majoring in econ than actually occurs. Some athletes who plan on economics as freshman may switch out to something else later on.

37% of entering athletes plan to major in economics
11% of entering non-athletes plan to major in economics

The pattern also occurs at highly selective LACs and in DIII For example, the Place of Athletics at Amherst report at https://www.amherst.edu/system/files/media/PlaceOfAthleticsAtAmherst_Secure_1.pdf states 21-22% of athletes major in economics compared to 12% of non-athletes. It mentions that athletes in the 4 sports of football, men’s basketball, baseball, and lacrosse compose 33% of the college’s economics majors and 37% of college’s political science majors.

Less clear is why this pattern occurs. As noted above, athletes do not appear to be starting in other majors and switching to econ due to lack of success. Instead many seem to plan on economics prior upon entering the college.

One factor is that athletics can require a large time commitment, which can make majors that require a large time commitment challenging. However, while economics may not require as large a time commitment as certain tech majors on average, it generally does not have a reputation for being an easy or low time commitment major. I’d make similar comments about athletes having less stringent admission criteria, sometimes leading to being less academically qualified than average at the college.

Another factor may be the types of persons who play sports at a high level may be more likely to favor certain career paths that share some things in common with playing a sport at a high level and/or are known to favor athletes, such as certain types consulting and finance positions. Similarly “social” sciences that have a good amount of interpersonal interaction may be more like to appeal to persons who are used to spending a large portion of their week as team players.

As touched on above, there is a wide variation from sport to sport. It’s not every sport that favors econ – just some sports. For example, I rowed at Stanford. At the time, being an engineering major was especially common among men’s rowers at Stanford. A news story about the high rate of engineering majors is at Engineering a rowing team | Stanford University School of Engineering . One possibly related factor is most of the team (including freshman team) was composed of walk-ons and non-recruited kids. Non-recruited kids who choose to try to walk on to a team that has 6AM practices on weekdays may be less fearful of other large time commitment activities than average, such as engineering majors. There may also be some similarities in appeal of mechanical engineering to mechanical rowing + improving boat speed, as touched on in the linked article, with fixing boat in product realization lab. This fits with anecdotal experiences, with team members also doing solar car race and such.

While your other reasons could also be true (re: interpersonal skills etc), econ does have a reputation as an easy major. To be careful, at Princeton, kids informally recognize three tracks within econ — frat track (with the lowest math needs), math track (some math — mostly Wall Street bound) and grad school track (heavy math). The last time I mentioned something like this here some people took offense saying that I thought Econ kids were dumb :-). This is not what I am saying.

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Regarding time commitment, I think a key factor is the flexibility with respect to the overall time commitment. With many STEM courses, for example, there are labs that may interfere with practice. Even if econ courses involve as much overall time, the student has more control over when to put in that time - they can schedule their studying around their practice and competition schedules.

During my son’s recruiting process, we heard from parents of other recruits that some coaches prefer non-science kids because of the potential conflicts with labs, and that some coaches will flat out tell recruits that they can’t major in X and be on the team. We never heard a coach say this directly, but I can see it happening with some programs at some schools.

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I agree some coaches deter and even drop potential recruits who express desire in a lab based major. Some coaches, even in D3, say there will be no lab science majors on my team. It is difficult to take lab classes in season when athletes are spending 32+ hours on their sport each week, and even during the off season, the time commitment is not insignificant. The winter athletes have it toughest as all, as their sport crosses both semesters (at schools that are on semester calendar).

I don’t think econ is perceived as one of the easy majors as any of the Ivys, Ivy Plus, or elite LACs…the perceived ‘easy’ majors are typically some flavor of sociology or education (but student teaching can be tough to work in as an athlete too).

IME the path for student athletes at these schools into jobs in finance/banking/consulting tends to be well defined (and communicated), and econ is a common major they know those before them took, and is one that will work with their demanding schedules.

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The study at http://public.econ.duke.edu/~psarcidi/grades_4.0.pdf reviews major attrition behavior among relatively less academically qualified students at Duke. Economics is grouped with engineering and physics as a major that less academically qualified students at Duke are more likely to switch out of due to “difficulty.” The study states, “We show that natural science, engineering, and economics courses are more difficult, associated with higher study times, and are more harshly graded than their humanities and social science counterparts.”

As you touched on, in general majors that use math and lean towards objective grading based on solving numerical problems tend to be perceived as more challenging. And majors that use little math and lean towards subjective grading based on papers or visual/performance projects tend to be perceived as easier. Econ leans more towards the math and objective grading than most other humanities and social science fields. At some highly selective colleges, econ majors require in-major courses that use multivariable calculus. As such other humanities and social sciences fields are often perceived as easier than econ. This relates to why econ was reclassified as a STEM major by the government and most highly selective colleges.

Econ may not be perceived to be as difficult as engineering, math, physics, and the like. However, I don’t think it is accurate to say economics has a reputation for being an easy major.

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The coach at a D1 academic reach for my son virtually guaranteed his admittance as long as he didn’t apply to majors x, y & z. Econ was actually a major he recommended to my son.

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One of D17s classmates graduated with Honors in Engineering while being a starter on the Purdue football team. I have to admit that I was impressed.

Looking through the current roster, I see a lot of Sociology, General Management, and Communication. Three of 103 are in engineering vs. 31% for the university - and one’s the Punter.:joy:

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In my earlier posts I mentioned highly selective private colleges. Not as selective and public colleges often show different patterns, particularly in regards to economics majors. The NCAA website lists following most overrepresented major groupings across all division I athletes. There generally seems to be separate patterns for revenue sports, male non-revenue sports, and female sports. Div I revenue sports at non-Ivy+ type colleges often more favor majors that have a reputation for easy and show a strong aversion to STEM.

Athletes Overrepresented (all effects stronger for males than females)
1 . Parks, Recreation, and Fitness – 6% athletes vs 3% all students (highest in football and baseball)
2. Communication – 8% athletes vs 5% all students (17% in men’s basketball)
3. Business – 26% athletes vs 16% all students (highest in male non-revenue sports)

Balanced Representation
Social Sciences – 15% athletes vs 14% non-athletes (20% in football)
Education – 4% athletes vs 4% non-athletes

Athletes Underrepresented
1 . Males in STEM – 14% male athletes vs 38% male non-athletes (female athletes not underrepresented, only 6% in men’s basketball)
2. Females in Humanities – 6% female athlete vs 11% female all students (males athletes not underrepresented due to revenue sports)

Were majors x, y & z those which were:

  1. more difficult to get admitted to at the college, and/or
  2. more difficult to schedule time slots for classes (labs, arts studio, music performance, etc.) around sports practice and games

?

Of course, some majors could have both characteristics (e.g. nursing).

Yes, all were very competitive at the school, two of which were STEM.

S19 is a XC/winter track/outdoor track runner at Bowdoin. His practice starts at 4:15 Monday-Friday and they finish up around 6:45. Two days a week, they lift at 7:00 am. They run long on Saturday mornings when they don’t have a meet and that takes most of the morning. This is year round because their sport competes all three seasons.

He is a math and physics double major. Many times physics classes have labs that go until 4:00 and he’s taken some comp sci classes which also have a regular MWF classtime as well as an afternoon lab. It’s rough. He would say that, on weekdays, he does nothing but class, run, and study including most Friday nights. He’s not an anomaly. Many of the runners are STEM majors.

It’s a lot but that’s what he’s chosen to do and he wouldn’t change it. Believe me, I’ve shown some frustration with all of the practices and I wish he had more time to enjoy other things that Bowdoin offers to its students (cool lectures, musical performances, tons of outdoor ed trips, and lots more) but he’s fulfilled and has plenty of STEM runners to look up to and study beside.

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My D19 is the same kind of distance runner. She’s a civil engineering major. She and her advisor have had one heck of a time scheduling classes/labs around practices and required weight training. It’s also hard missing school for away meets.

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I think the scheduling will vary quite a bit at different combinations of colleges and sports. Earlier in the thread I mentioned being on the rowing team at Stanford. I also was an electrical engineering major, pre-med, and co-terminal master’s. However, labs or classes conflicting with rowing practice times was not a big issue.

When I was on a student, the bus left for in-water practice at 6AM on weekdays and returned (barely) in time for 9AM classes (very few classes were before 9AM). According to the article at Dawn Patrol. Stanford rowers are out of bed and on… | by Stanford Magazine | Stanford Magazine | Medium , more recently, practice has been moved up to 5:45AM at the athletes’ request, so students had time to eat before getting to 9AM class. We also had in-water practice on Saturdays, which again did not conflict with classes. The afternoon conditioning/weight training was shorter and had a schedule similar to a lecture class. Like other lecture classes, a student might need to avoid scheduling 2 classes at the same time… generally not a major issue.

Labs typically had multiple times to choose from, so again generally not a major issue. The sole exception I can recall was an EE lab. Being a relatively smaller class, there were only ~2 lab times to choose from. And the TAs chose to schedule them both late at night, probably to avoid conflicts with classes, athletics, and other activities. My lab was scheduled to end at 11pm and often extended to midnight or later. While there was not a conflict in start times, I did not perform at my best during late night hours and sometimes rushed through so I’d get sufficient sleep. This contributed to getting the lowest final grade I have ever received during college.

This will vary by school and sport. You can look at the rosters for your sport for the last few years at schools you are considered to get a feel for what athletes have done.

At the big D1 schools, there is typically an academic liason for each team whose job is to help with scheduling, get tutors, work with profs when exceptions are needed, etc. (They often have a designated study space and dining facilities, which helps a lot with the logistics.)

For some programs/conferences, you may be hopping on a plane weekly and spending a night in a hotel, so you may not be able to schedule Friday classes in season unless they are recorded. At others, you may travel hours to and from by bus but you’ll be home to your own bed on game day.

Rowers and basketball players have to practice together while swimmers can do their workouts alone. The latter will have more flexibility. At LACs with lots of student athletes, there is often a late afternoon block of time when no classes are scheduled.

But also know that the athletes help each other out, so if your kid chooses a major that others on the team have, there’s also a lot of help there. My son’s team had lots of econ and physics majors.

This is always such an important thing to explore upfront. Some coaches pride themselves on having high achieving students as team members. Others, less so. This is a great topic to dig into at your OV. Team members are in the best position to give you the truth!

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Agreed. The top math student and the top physics student last year at Bowdoin (as determined by each dept) were runners. I think maybe half of the kids are STEM, not all of course, but enough to support each other. Good to look at the majors of the players on the team for sure and talk to the coach.

Probably the main points have mostly been covered. I agree that team tradition/culture and the difficulty of scheduling labs are huge parts of this. Not just around practices, but around travel schedules that can make it hard to attend and/or make up missed labs. I think when coaches guide athletes it’s usually with this in mind.

Econ and SPIA aren’t necessarily easier at Princeton than anything else but I think there’s no question that a schedule heavy on problem sets and labs makes the scheduling logistics harder than classes that are more lecture and paper oriented. (And yes, I know there are p sets in Econ, but in the non math track they are not nearly as extensive as some of the BSE p sets and can be planned for more easily). And the thesis experience (ease of completion even if not to desired level of quality) probably plays a role too.

I know plenty of super smart athletes at Princeton and other elite schools in engineering, math, natural sciences. They can do it but it’s definitely not the easiest path to take. Especially at D1 programs with significant travel.

I do wonder if team sport athletes have a natural affinity for disciplines like Econ involving strategic thinking. It would make some sense given that they’re “living” game theory most days between 4 and 7.

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It would not be surprising if this were more of an issue at smaller colleges or in smaller departments where more limited options of lab times make it more difficult for an athlete to be in a lab-heavy major at smaller colleges or in smaller departments.

There are also other factors that may impact smaller colleges like LACs differently and often lead to a more blunted major distribution effects than at Harvard/Princeton/… , such as DIII vs DI (athletics budget, influence on admission decisions, rate of walk ons, # hours practice per week, …), different degrees of influence from Wall street finance type companies, and different specific sports.

For example, the news story at A comprehensive analysis of athletes and their majors - The Phoenix. lists athlete major distribution at Swarthmore for 2015-16. The story highlights economics as the major with the largest discrepancy like the Princeton news story linked in the first post, but the degree of difference between athletes and non-athletes seems fairly mild compared to Harvard/Princeton. Specific numbers are below:

% Economics Majors at Swarthmore: 2015-16
Male Athletes – 26% Economics
All Athletes – 18% Economics
All Non-Athletes – 12% Economics
Female Athletes – 7% Economics

Numbers for other majors are below I estimated non-athlete based on IPEDS of the corresponding year. Swarthmore male athletes in the sampled year appear to be more likely to major in social sciences (economics, political science, and psychology) and engineering, and less likely to major in computer science + biology. Athletes being more likely to major in engineering seems counterintuitive and may relate to small sample size. Female athletes appear more likely to major in psychology and less likely to major in English + education.

Demographic differences may also contribute. For example, the previously linked Athletics at Amherst report states athletes were 74% White compared to 35% for non-athletes. Athletes were 4% low income compared to 31% for non-Athletes. If you compare athletes to non-athletes of a similar White + wealthy demographic, I expect you’ll see some of the same major effects in the non-athletes, such as wealthy + White non-athletes generally being more likely to major in econ and less likely to major in CS (Asian students are often severely overrepresented in CS, so other races often are low compared to overall student body).

Most Common Majors Among Male Athletes at Swarthmore: 2015-16
1 . Economics – 26%
2. Engineering – 14.5%
3. Political Science – ?
4. Computer Science – ?
5. Psychology – ?
6. Mathematics – ?

Most Common Majors Among Male Non-Athletes at Swarthmore: 2015-16
1 . Economics – 20%
2. Computer Science – 13%
3. Biology – 10%
5. Mathematics – 9%
4. Political Science – 8%

Most Common Majors Among Female Athletes at Swarthmore: 2015-16
1 . Biology – 14%
2. Psychology – 11%
3. Political Science – 10%
4. Education – 8%
5. Economics / History – 7%

Most Common Majors Among Female Non-Athletes at Swarthmore: 2015-16
1 . Biology – 17%
2. Education – 11%
3. Political Science – 10%
4. English – 10%
5. Economics – 6%

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So, one of my athletes says he wants to major in engineering and/or art. The other says music or something allied health.

I went to some school websites to see which schools had engineering or allied health majors. Just out of curiosity. And I found some, but I didn’t find any arts majors, either visual or performing. Is that because of logistics? Does anyone know kids who do visual arts and a sport in college?

My daughter was an athlete and engineer.

She had a high school teammate who went to Savannah College of Art and Design (not sure of major, but most of them do a lot of art courses). It plays in the NAIA.

Doing an art major would be challenging because many spend all night in a studio or have projects that have to be coordinated with other students (a theater production, choir) but it can be done if a student if very organized and flexible (take some classes in summer or semester opposite the sport).