Via Gregg Easterbrook's recent column at ESPN.com, which criticizes college athletics for failing to seriously incorporate an academic mission, I learned of this forthcoming article by Wharton School professor Betsey Stevenson (draft here), which studies the effect of athletic participation on educational and professional attainment. Stevenson uses the early years of Title IX to simulate a laboratory designed to test for the causal relationship between athletics and academics and avoid the problem of selection effects that is typical of such studies. (Selection effects means that the merely correlating athletic participation and educational attainment doesn't tell you whether one influences the other, or whether it just happens to be that the same kids who already do well in school are those who have the self-confidence, parental support, lifestyle, or whatever, that makes them select into sports.)
Between 1972 and 1978, the rates of girls' participation in high school athletics rose from 1-in-27 generally, to 1-in-4. She then measured other outcomes, such as college attendance and employment, for women who would have been in high school during that time. By comparing those outcomes to those for boys, whose athletic participation rates held constant during the same time, she demonstrated that athletic participation contributed to, rather than just merely correlated with, those outcomes. Specifically, she concludes that every 10% increase in girls' athletic participation lead to a 1% increase in college attendance, and a 1-2% increase in women's participation in the work force.
Stevenson's research, forthcoming in the Review of Economics and Statistics, thus provides support for continuing to expand athletic opportunities for girls as well as boys. It also supports Easterbrook's conclusion that college athletic departments should be promoting -- rather than undermining -- the benefits of sports participation in the classroom.