Sports programs have been an integral part of the school environment for decades (1). High schools, in particular, are important venues for providing athletic opportunities for a large proportion of the adolescent population. According to a recent report on high school sports access and participation in the United States, 77% of public high schools offer sports, and 39% of enrolled students participate in them (2). The National Federation of State High School Associations reports that 7.9 million students participated in high school sports in 2018 (3).
Involvement in sports has many benefits. In addition to increasing physical activity and fitness (4–6), sports participation is correlated with psychosocial benefits such as improved self-esteem and social skills development (7). Research is also emerging on the effect of team sports on brain development and mood (8), which is important given the increasing prevalence of adolescent depression (9,10). Proponents of sports participation report that athletes learn valuable life skills through sports such as leadership and teamwork, and these skills may transfer into opportunities for career success (11,12). The physical and psychosocial benefits of sports participation may be especially important for low-income students who may have a disproportionate risk of poor health outcomes. In addition, schools can benefit from having sports programs because sports can create social environments that foster overall school spirit and school pride for all students, not just athletes (13).
In spite of these benefits, school budget crises are negatively affecting sports programs.
School funding cuts result in prioritization of activities directly tied to meeting academic performance standards. Extracurricular programs (such as sports) are often the first to be reduced or eliminated (14). Some schools have been able to maintain programs through fundraising or sponsorship efforts, but this can be difficult as interscholastic sports programs are costly (15). The cost of running a school sports program includes uniforms, protective equipment, facility fees and maintenance, transportation, and staff. Rising expenses and reduced budgets have resulted in a trend for shifting part of the program costs to the student athletes and their families. According to the 2014 School Health Policies and Practices Study, 38.7% of districts required students to pay to participate in high school interscholastic sports (16). The fees vary greatly among districts, but a 2018 study showed that the average fee per sport was $161, which was up from $126 in 2014 (17). When other sports participation–related expenses are added to the fees, the cost is an estimated $408 (17).
If sports programs are eliminated because of funding cuts, all students lose the opportunity to participate in school sports. Sports participation fees may reduce involvement in interscholastic sports for a subset of students who cannot pay or whose parents perceive fees as too high. A 2016 study by Zdroik and Veliz (17) assessed the influence of fees on participation in interscholastic sports in Michigan. They found that $100 fees resulted in 10% reduction in sports participation, and this decrease doubled when fees were $200. The influence of fees on participation may not be equal for all student groups. According to the 2018 National Poll on Children’s Health, nonsports participation rates from lower-income households were double the rate for children in higher-income households (18).
Because the US Constitution outlines education as a power reserved to the state, state law can require certain curricula and guide school district policies. Most states have chosen to not explicitly prohibit or allow schools to charge fees, leaving the decision up to the discretion of each district. Sixteen states have laws allowing districts to charge fees for sports or extracurricular programs, and one state (California) has a law prohibiting schools from charging fees for activities in public schools (19). These state laws give permission to districts to determine amounts, collect fees, and control funds. Because the fees may disadvantage low-income students, nine state laws include a requirement of having fee waivers for certain groups of students, such as those who are eligible for lunch price subsidies. The potential for inequities from sports participation fee policies resulted in some state-level opposition. In 2017, two states without fee policy laws (Michigan and New Jersey) introduced legislation to limit or prohibit sports participation fees. Although these bills were not successfully enacted, their introduction highlights the growing concern for effects of the policies on student athletes. The purpose of this study was to explore the implementation and perception of sports participation policies in US high schools among a national sample of high school athletic directors.
Because a comprehensive measure of this topic does not exist, we created a survey based on the literature and our formative studies (15,19). The survey was developed for schools with and without sports participation fee policies. For those with fee policies (i.e., those charging fees), the survey had three main sections: 1) specifics of the fee policy, 2) assessment of waivers within the policy, and 3) general perceptions of sports participation fees. Participants who reported not having a sports participation fee policy in their school or district were asked about their perceptions of sports participation fees, with questions relevantly worded to compare with questions for those with policies (e.g., “Amount of fees do not seem to burden families” or “Amount of fees would not burden families”). The survey assessed position type, years in position, and years working in school athletics. We pilot tested the survey with two athletic directors and two public health research staff. Minor edits for clarification were made after this pilot test. The survey instrument is available in Appendix, Supplemental Digital Content 1, http://links.lww.com/TJACSM/A95.
Study Population and Sample
The participant population included school district officials with knowledge of sports participation fees randomly selected from a national sample of high schools. The list of school districts was obtained from National Center of Education Statistics 2014 data (20). The National Center of Education Statistics compiles a complete listing of every education agency in the United States responsible for providing free public elementary/secondary instruction or education support services. The list includes a directory and location of districts, and information on student membership by grade, race/ethnicity, and sex. The sampling frame for this study does not include school districts in California because state law prohibits schools from charging sports participation fees. Of the 13,869 districts on the list, 627 were omitted because they did not provide high school/secondary education, which was the focus of the current study. To be able to detect at least a 0.10 difference between districts with and without sports participation fee policies, a sample size of 193 per group is needed (power, 0.80). We anticipated a 30% response rate for this study and adjusted the sample accordingly. The list of 13,242 districts was stratified by size and by state, and the total sample was allocated in proportion to the average enrollment of the districts within each state. Districts were then randomly selected within each strata (N = 4037).
Research assistants used the names of the school districts in the sample to search online for high schools and contact information. If the district had more than one high school, a systematic process for selection was used. Once the high school was identified, research staff searched for the name and contact information of athletic directors or other district officials through publicly available websites and directories. After omitting districts that were duplicates, no longer existed, no longer had high schools, or did not offer any sports programs, our final sample was 3342. The institutional review board at Washington University in St. Louis approved this study.
We chose to use both online and postal surveys to reach this population. We sent 3161 e-mail invitations with a survey link to potential participants; of these, 162 were returned as invalid. We did not have e-mail addresses (only street address) for 188 high schools on our list. We sent out paper surveys with a postage-paid return envelope via US Postal Service to the 162 with invalid e-mail addresses plus the 188 street address-only schools (N = 350). Of these, seven were returned by the post office, giving us a total of 343 valid mailing addresses. Overall, our survey was sent to 3342 schools. We offered a $20 online retail gift card to participants for completion of the survey as an incentive.
Data were collected from November 2017 to March 2018. The invitation to complete the online survey was e-mailed, along with three subsequent e-mail reminders at 1-wk intervals. E-mails contained an individual link to the online survey and consent information. If contacted via postal service, the participant received an introductory letter, consent information, the paper survey, and a self-addressed, postage-paid return envelope. Mail participants only received one initial letter with no reminders.
Data from the online survey platform and the data entered from the paper survey were compiled into one database for analyses in Stata Version 15. We added district characteristics (size, rural-urban continuum to describe locale, region in the United States, percentage of nonwhite students, and percentage of students in district eligible for free or reduced lunch (FRL) prices) for each respondent. FRL was used as a proxy measure for income, and data were divided into tertiles where the highest percentage of students eligible for FRL was categorized as low income and the lowest percentage of students eligible for FRL was indicated as the higher-income tertile. We calculated descriptive statistics for the total respondents and by group (schools with fee policies and those without fee policies). We also summarized fee structures and calculated averages, if relevant. We computed three multilogistic regression models to 1) identify correlates of a school having a sports participation fee policy versus not having a fee policy, 2) identify correlates of having a waiver of fees, and 3) detect differences in perceptions of sports participation fee policies among respondents from schools with and without policies. Predictor variables included district size, income, census regions, and type of locale. Individual binary logistic regressions were run against the outcome variables, and significant unadjusted regressions were put into the final adjusted model. Bivariate statistics were used to determine significant contribution (P < 0.05) to the model, and then added to the final, adjusted regression models. Diagnostics included a linktest, collinearity, and correlations for the predictor variables and the model.
We received responses from 901 online surveys and 90 postal service surveys, for a total of N = 991. The response rates from both modes of delivery were similar at 30% for the online surveys and 27% for mailed surveys. The respondents were mostly school (51.4%) or district (36.2%) athletic directors, with 54.7% being in their current position for less than 5 yr. See Table 1. Approximately one-third of the respondents’ districts were majority nonwhite (29.7%), and half were located in the Midwest region of the United States (49.4%). See Table 1. Many districts were located in suburban (23.7%) or rural (45.7%) locations. Few respondents reported a decrease in the number of sports teams at the schools over the past decade (6.4%), yet 32% reported a perceived decrease in the number of students playing sports; 28.5% of respondents in schools with fee policies and 34.3% without policies.
Almost 40% of respondents (39.9%) reported having sports participation fees for interscholastic sports. The parameters of these policies varied greatly; 32% charged fees per season, 26% per year, and 42% by sport. If the fee varied by sport, football was most often reported as having the highest fee, followed by ice hockey. Cross-country was the sport most frequently reported to have the lowest fees, followed by track and field. The range of fees within sports was $135 to $580, with an average of $371. The average amount of the fee overall (varying by sport and set fee) was $120. If respondents reported a set fee for all sports, the average amount was $80 (SD, $66). Approximately half (52%) had a maximum fee for multiple-sport athletes, with and average amount of $176 (SD, $209). Forty-eight percent reported a maximum fee for multiple athletes in the same family, with an average amount of $310 (SD, $253).
Perceptions of Fee Policies
There were significant differences in perception of fee policies between respondents with and without sports participation fees (Table 2). A higher percentage of respondents with policies agreed that fees were a better alternative to elimination of programs compared with respondents in districts without fees (94.4% vs 74.1%). This group also did not perceive that fee policies resulted in students having to choose between sports if they played more than one (10.3%) versus 55.7% for respondents in districts without policies. More respondents in districts without fees agreed with statements about parents and coaches opposing fee policies compared with respondents in districts with policies. Half (50.1%) with fee policies did not perceive the amount of fees as being a burden on families. There was no significant difference in agreement between groups on two items: “Charging fees is an effective way to increase the athletic budget” and “Booster clubs help raise funds for sports programs.” Among respondents without fees (N = 595), 24% reported that their district has considered charging fees, and 26.9% indicated that their district was very likely/likely to implement a fee policy within the next 5 yr.
Of the districts with sports participation fee policies, 78.5% (n = 312) had a waiver provision in place to provide financial assistance to students not able to afford the fees, and 70% aligned eligibility for waivers with eligibility for FRL. More than half (59%) waived the entire fee, and 37% reported having a sliding scale option. When asked about the number of waivers granted per year, 55.5% of respondents reported 20 or fewer. Almost all of the respondents (86.5%) agreed or strongly agreed that waivers cover everyone who needs them.
The outcome variable in the first regression was having a sports participation policy versus not having a policy. The predictor variables were district size, income level of district, census region, type of locale, change in number of sports teams, and change in number of student athletes (Table 3). All predictor variables except for district size were significant in bivariate analysis. Lower-income districts had significantly lower odds of having a sports participation fee policy than did higher-income districts (adjusted odds ratio (ADJ OR), 0.28; 95% confidence interval (CI), 0.18–0.42). Districts located in suburban areas (ADJ OR, 1.79; 95% CI, 1.15–2.79) were more likely to have fee policies compared with towns. Respondents who indicated the number of sports teams in their district increased over the past 10 yr were more likely to work in districts with sports participation fee policies compared with those who reported no change in number of sports teams (ADJ OR, 1.51; 95% CI, 1.09–2.09).
In the second regression (Table 4), only districts with sports participation fee policies were analyzed. The outcome variable was having a waiver versus not having a waiver. Predictor variables were majority race in district, district income level, type of locale, census region, and district size. Only majority race, district income level, and census region were significant in bivariate analysis and computed in the regression model. The odds of having a waiver for sports participation fees was significantly less for lower-income districts when compared with those in the higher-income districts (ADJ OR, 0.21; 95% CI, 0.09–0.47). The only other significant predictor in this model was census region. Districts in the Northeast and the West were more likely to have waivers when compared with districts in the Midwest.
The outcome variable in the third regression model (Table 5) was having a policy versus not having a policy, with each perception question as a predictor. All questions remained significant after bivariate analysis, and all except for one (“Booster clubs help raise funds”) remained significant in the adjusted regression model. Respondents who agreed with the statement “Fees are a better alternative to elimination” had more than 10 times the odds of being in districts with sports participation fees (ADJ OR, 10.55; 95% CI, 3.04–36.64). Respondents in districts with policies were significantly more likely to agree that the amount of fees do not/would not burden families than respondents in districts without policies (ADJ OR, 1.69; 95% CI, 1.06–2.69). Perception of opposition also was significantly different. Respondents from districts with policies were significantly less likely to agree than disagree with the statements “Parents oppose fees” and “Coaches oppose fees.”
Although most US high schools offer interscholastic sports, budget cuts are forcing districts to make changes in sports programs affecting participation. Shifting some of the program costs to student athletes is a growing trend. District and school athletic directors are at the intersection between school administration and sports participation. Their perceptions provide a valuable insight into this topic. Respondents from 40% of districts reported having sports participation fee policies, which is similar to 38.7% of districts from 2014 nationally representative School Health Policies and Practices Study data (16), although half of the respondent’s districts (49.4%) were from the Midwest region of the United States.
Many who oppose sports participation fees posit a potential decrease in number of student athletes due to the cost. In our survey, only 4.6% of athletic directors in districts with fee policies perceived a decrease in sports participation over the past decade when compared with 7.7% of respondents from districts without policies. Majority in both groups reported the same or increase in the number of students playing sports within the past 10 yr. Matching the actual participation numbers with the timeline of implementation and evolution of sports participation fees policies would provide more concrete evidence of fee impact on the number of student athletes.
The fee amounts varied greatly among the districts represented in our study and had wide ranges. Overall, the average fee reported by athletic directors in our sample was $120, which is lower than what was reported in a state-specific study (17,18). This amount is also lower than the cost to play most community club sports. A 2016 survey of parents found that they were spending an average of $100–500 per month, per child to participate in highly competitive or elite teams run by nonschool organizations (21). A qualitative study of athletic directors reported the costs of club or competitive sports team as a contributor for parental acceptance of school sport fees (15). If parents of adolescent athletes are accustomed to paying high fees for the opportunity to play on competitive club teams, they may consider the lower fees to pay school sports nominal in comparison. However, not every parent can afford the time and resources needed for these costly club sports programs. In a recent National Recreation and Parks Survey, registration and equipment costs were the biggest barrier to registering for recreational team sports for households whose income is less than $35,000 (22). Thus, free school sports are an especially important component of equitable opportunities for low-income students.
The way fees are structured within sports participation policies may also be a challenge for parents. Only about half of the schools with policies in our study had fee caps per family. The aggregate fees may be a limitation to allowing sports participation for families with more than one student athlete. Districts with per sport fees but no student caps may discourage multiple-sport athletes. Preliminary qualitative research with athletic directors found that per sport fees without student caps may keep students from trying out new sports (15). Tracking the dynamics of sports participation within families and multisport participation will provide more insight into this aspect of the topic.
More than 75% of districts with fees also had some type of waiver plan for students who might not be able to pay, but more than half of respondents reported that it only provided 20 or fewer waivers per year. Eighty-seven percent of respondents perceived waivers as covering everyone who needs them, yet it is unclear how almost 20% of the districts with fee policies might accommodate students who cannot pay sports participation fees. Most respondents reported that waiver eligibility aligned with the criteria for federal lunch subsidies. Previous studies report that there may be a gap in sports fee assistance for students who do not meet FRL eligibility but still have financial needs (7,15,17,19) There is also the risk of stigma associated with asking for financial assistance, which may be a barrier to asking for help with fees. Our regression analysis comparing districts with provisions for waivers and those without waivers showed that lower-income school districts were less likely to charge fees, and when they did, they were less likely to provide waivers than the highest-income districts. We hypothesize that because the fees in these schools were lower in comparison to fees in higher-income schools, waivers may not be implemented. An alternative hypothesis may be that financial support is available but not formally outlined in an official waiver policy. This survey did not allow for deeper exploration into the implementation of waiver program, which warrants further study.
Our regression results also show higher perceived support for sports participation fee policies among athletic directors in districts with policies when compared with those working in districts without policies. Prior work also concurs with these findings (15). However, perception of the fee policies among athletic directors and school administration is just part of the broader scope of this topic. Because many schools rely on voter support for increasing school district budgets through tax changes, schools may leverage the potential of sports fees to gain broader community support. The fee policies may also be presented as a way to impede sports program elimination. In a recent scan of media related to sports participation fee policies, many districts would have to implement sports fee policies if levy or tax increases were not passed (23).
This paper adds to the scarce body of literature on the sports participation fee policies, but limitations of the study warrant mention. First, data were self-reported by the district representative who filled out the survey. We did not collect or analyze the actual policies of respondents’ districts, which would have strengthened findings. Second, although a 30% response rate is comparable to other similar online surveys (24,25), a higher response would generate more generalizable findings. Our respondents overrepresented Midwestern, suburban or smaller school districts, and a broader surveillance is needed. Lastly, there are limits inherent of cross-sectional studies and causation cannot be implied. In spite of these limitations, findings provide a platform for future research on this topic. Next steps in exploring school sport participation fee policies should include parental perception, as well as an objective measure of outcomes (e.g., change in participation) related to fee policy introduction. Knowledge of how these fees are affecting low-income students is needed.
School districts provide an opportunity to play sports for a large number of US adolescents, which increases exposure to the physical and mental health benefits of sports participation. Because of funding cuts, many districts are implementing sports participation fee policies that shift some of the costs of the program to the athletes and their families. Athletic directors report great variation in fee amount, structure, and implementation. This study provides insight into correlates of policies, but more information is needed on how the fees may affect sports participation. Although most policies have waivers for students in need, further exploration into the level of accommodation for low-income students is warranted.
This study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Policies for Action Children’s Healthy Weight Hub, located at the University of Illinois at Chicago Institute for Health Research and Policy, and the Washington University in St. Louis Brown School, Prevention Center (Grant No. 73758).
The authors declare no conflict of interest. The results presented in the present study do not constitute endorsement by the American College of Sports Medicine.
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