Soft Skills

Young Athletes Make More Money Later In Life. There’s A Good Reason

A new study found that college athletes make more money than the rest of us. Why?

Rear view of female soccer players sitting on ground outdoors
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Geek might be chic these days — but according to a new study, jocks are still more likely to come out on top in the end — at least financially, despite everything you’ve heard about how the nerds become the bosses someday.

The study — which has not been peer-reviewed — was conducted by a team of researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research, who examined data from over 400,000 male and female graduates from Ivy League universities, between 1920 and 2021. They found that college athletes at those universities went on to earn as much as $220,000 more throughout their careers than non-athletes.

Former athletes are more likely to earn an MBA and segue that degree into careers in finance or business. They are less likely to obtain an M.D., Ph.D., or advanced STEM degree than non-athletes. Athletes are also more likely to obtain a leadership position in their organizations than non-athletes.

But why? Well, there’s one plainly obvious reason — socioeconomic status. The research team found that athletes who participated in “elite” sports — such as crew, squash, and lacrosse — that are generally associated with prep schools and higher-income institutions had better career and earning outcomes than their peers who played sports generally associated with public school, such as football and baseball. Similarly, students who attend private high schools and come from higher-income families are more likely to go on to higher-paying careers than middle- and lower-class students.

But, the research found that athletes in general, not just athletes in pricier sports, had higher earning potential than non-athletes. So what else could it be? At least one part of the answer is the soft skills athletes gain from their college sport of choice.

In other words, it’s not the ability to row faster, tackle harder, or hit a home run that makes athletes higher earners. It’s the soft skills they learn through a lifetime of competition and training. Becoming a collegiate-level athlete, even at one of the Ivys that aren’t necessarily known for their sports programs, takes considerable dedication, confidence, and perseverance. Athletes require countless hours of practice to achieve the level of ability needed to perform at the collegiate level.

These experiences lend themselves to the development of leadership abilities, teamwork, and a sense of responsibility, not to mention physical fitness. And the gains of participating in sports don’t just help adults earn more in the workplace.

Previous research, for example, has shown that youth sports result in a plethora of positive outcomes for kids, including improved cognitive performance, increased emotional and mental well-being, higher self-esteem, and decreased stress. Previous research has also found that, though kids from disadvantaged backgrounds have fewer opportunities to participate in organized sports, being able to do so helps them succeed in school. Because, just like there are socioeconomic inequalities in sports participation for young adults, the same is true of kids. Not all kids have the opportunity to benefit from participation in youth sports. One major roadblock is obviously financial — sports are expensive, especially if you hope to be competitive.

In addition to signup fees and equipment purchases, many upper- and middle-class families enroll their children in expensive training camps, even as early as kindergarten, resulting in highly competitive youth and high school athletes. Lower-income families simply can’t afford to pay for camps and private coaching, leaving their children at a disadvantage on the field. These inequities can lead to kids not wanting to participate, which, as we now see, can have far-reaching consequences, even potentially impacting their earning potential as adults.

“Our results suggest that non-academic human capital [soft skills] developed through athletic participation is valued in the labor market,” wrote the study authors. In other words, sports are important for kids, not just physically but emotionally as well, and participation at high levels could make a difference in not only their career trajectory but their lifelong earning potential.