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May 25, 2006

Is Cheerleading or Student Government the
Likeliest Path to a Bachelors at an Elite School?

Sociologists research extracurricular activities and the likelihood a student pursues a B.A., especially at an elite college

Washington, DC—Participation in dance classes and music classes are associated with an increased chance of a student pursuing a college degree, but art classes or visits to the public library are not, according to recent research by sociologists.
Jay Gabler, a Harvard University doctoral student, and Jason Kaufman, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, looked at which extracurricular activities and attributes increase students’ likelihood of attending college, including elite institutions, and which do not. They found that some extracurricular activities increase a student’s probability of attending college and prestigious institutions, but grades, test scores, and family background matter more.

Gabler and Kaufman’s research uses data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS), which asked thousands of students hundreds of questions about their activities and achievements at home and at school. The NELS also gathers information about students’ families and communities.

“Grades and standardized test scores matter a great deal, as do parents' income and education,” said Gabler and Kaufman. “Even when we consider these, however, we find that participation in some extracurricular activities in high school makes it much more likely that a student will go on to college.”

Participation in varsity team sports makes matriculation to college more likely, but attributes such as English as a student’s first language or whether parents limit TV do not matter much.

The results changed somewhat when the researchers looked at admission to highly selective colleges (according to rankings from U.S. News & World Report for the year respondents were college-shopping). Surprisingly few extracurricular activities increase students' likelihood of college matriculation. When it comes to elite schools, participation in sports, student council, and music or dance lessons do not matter, but involvement in the yearbook or the school newspaper do make a difference. Participation in a school hobby club makes a student much more likely to attend a selective school, too.

A most interesting finding, according to Gabler and Kaufman, is that “students whose parents visited art museums regularly were much more likely to attend an elite college than students whose parents did not. It does not even matter whether the students themselves visit museums.” This was one of the strongest effects the researchers observed.

This finding is related to what the eminent sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called cultural capital, said Gabler and Kaufman. In other words, knowledge about elite cultures (for example, fine art) is an asset as much as money or social connections are. Even on a college application or a college interview, these differences are likely to be apparent. They also hypothesize that cultural taste may increase their likelihood of applying to elite schools in the first place.

This research focuses on college matriculation, which requires that students must complete these steps: apply to, gain admission to, and enroll in college. Gabler and Kaufman are currently following up with additional research (with Harvard graduate student Nathan Fosse) to examine each of these steps individually. "We're interested in what predicts students' admission to college," say the researchers, "but it may be more important to understand why most students never even apply."

Gabler and Kaufman conclude by noting, “There are no magic bullets…. Only a few activities matter, and the most important predictors in our data have to do with family background rather than extracurricular activities.”

For more information, contact Mr. Gabler (651-226-6869; or Dr. Kaufman (617-461-8389; A copy of the Gabler and Kaufman article, "Chess, Cheerleading, Chopin: What Gets You Into College?," in the Spring 2006 Contexts magazine, may be obtained by contacting Johanna Olexy at (202) 247-9871 or

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Contexts magazine, a peer-reviewed publication, seeks to apply new knowledge, stimulate fresh thinking, and disseminate important information produced by sociologists. It received the “Best Sociology Journal of 2002" award from the Association of American Publishers, Scholarly Publishing Division and was named "One of the Best New Magazines of 2002" by Library Journal.

About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology
by society.