Public Release: 

Pay-to-play keeping kids on the sidelines

One in 7 parents whose children did not play middle/high school sports cited cost as reason, according to new U-M National Poll on Children's Health

University of Michigan Health System

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The cost of school sports keeps many children from participating, according to the latest University of Michigan Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health.

Many schools charge fees for students who participate in sports at the middle or high school level, often called "pay to play" fees. In this month's poll, parents of children 12 to 17 years old nationwide were asked about participation fees for school sports.

The poll found that although 42 percent of parents said at least one of their middle or high school children participated in school sports during the 2013-14 school year, there were substantial differences in participation based on household income.

Only 30 percent of lower-income families (those making less than $60,000 per year) have a child playing school sports, compared to 51 percent among families earning more than $60,000 per year, according to the poll, says Sarah Clark, M.P.H., associate research scientist at the Child Health Evaluation and Research (CHEAR) Unit at the University of Michigan and associate director of the National Poll on Children's Health.

Notably, among the 58% of parents whose child did not play school sports at all, 14 percent cited cost as the reason for non-participation.

"Participation in school sports offers so many benefits to children and teens, from lower dropout rates to improved health and reduced obesity. It is significant to have one in seven parents of non-sports participants indicate that cost is keeping their kid out of the game," says Clark.

The poll found the average school sports participation fee was $126 per child; while 38 percent paid $0 in participation fees--some receiving waivers for those fees--18 percent paid $200 or more.

In addition to the participation fees, parents in the poll reported an average of $275 in other sports-related costs like equipment and travel.

"So the average cost for sports participation was $400 per child. For many families, that cost is out of reach," Clark says.

The income disparity in this poll was similar to the results of a May 2012 C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health on the same subject. Sports participation among lower-income students decreased by 10% from the 2012 report.

And surprisingly, among parents in households earning more than $60,000 a year, nearly 10% said their child had decreased sports participation because of cost - twice as high as reported in 2012.

"Many schools base participation fee waivers on eligibility for income-based programs like Medicaid or free and reduced lunch. That could exclude working families who earn too much for a waiver but may not be able to afford the additional cost of sports fees, and that's what we see in these findings" Clark says.

"School administrators struggle to balance the budget for school sports without creating obstacles to participation. This poll shows the need for schools to continue to work on options for both low-income families, and families that don't qualify for waivers but still may need financial help, because the risk of kids dropping out of sports is very real."


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Full report:

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Purpose/Funding: The C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health - based at the Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit at the University of Michigan and funded by the Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases and the University of Michigan Health System - is designed to measure major health care issues and trends for U.S. children.

Data Source: This report presents findings from a nationally representative household survey conducted exclusively by GfK Custom Research, LLC GfK Custom Research, LLC (GfK), for C.S. Mott Children's Hospital via a method used in many published studies. The survey was administered in June 2014 to a randomly selected, stratified group of parents with a child age 12-17 (n=982) from GfK's web-enabled KnowledgePanel® that closely resembles the U.S. population. The sample was subsequently weighted to reflect population figures from the Census Bureau. The survey completion rate was 53 percent among panel members contacted to participate. The margin of error is ± 3 to 9 percentage points.

Findings from the U-M C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health do not represent the opinions of the investigators or the opinions of the University of Michigan.

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