Why do athletes choose social sciences over STEM? We looked at the numbers.

Despite the commitment of daily practices and weekend competitions, varsity student-athletes, in principle, have the same academic experience as other students. Composing just under 18 percent of the undergraduate population, student-athletes receive the same advising, take the same classes, and are held to the same standards.   

“As a matter of educational policy,” the University’s athletics website says, “Princeton seeks to assure that student-athletes are representative of the student body.”

But with April 11 marking the end of concentration declaration for A.B. sophomores, The Daily Princetonian analyzed the concentration choices of current upperclass students. The ‘Prince’ found that in their academic interests, student-athletes aren’t quite representative of the student body. 

Student-athletes disproportionately major in the social sciences — 57.8 percent of current upperclass athletes study within the discipline. In contrast, only 29.8 percent of non-athletes chose a social science concentration. 

Economics is the most popular concentration among student-athletes — 19.3 percent concentrate in the department compared to 8.3 percent of non-athletes. 12.8 percent of athletes concentrate in SPIA compared to 8.2 percent of non-athletes and 8.7 percent of athletes concentrate in politics compared to 3.2 percent of non-athletes.

Student-athletes are underrepresented in STEM. Only 16 percent concentrate within the natural sciences, compared to 28 percent of non-athletes. 19.7 percent of student-athletes are on the B.S.E. track, compared to 29.3 percent of non-athletes. 

Student-athletes also chose to major in the humanities at a rate five percent below that of non-athletes, 12.9 percent of whom are in the discipline. 

Seven departments — astrophysics, music, Slavic languages and literature, French and Italian, German, East Asian studies, and Spanish and Portuguese — have no student-athlete concentrators. 

Conversely, student-athletes are overrepresented in 12 departments. 35.7 percent of politics concentrators, 34.1 percent of economics, and 33.8 percent of sociology students are athletes.

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According to Associate Dean Alec Dun, these trends reflect student-athletes’ academic interests, not their differing ability to fulfill certain concentration requirements. Dun serves as a liaison to the Athletic Department.

“There’s no academic interest that a student-athlete can’t follow because of the sport they do,” Dun said. “We live and die by that.” 

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Dolly Lampson-Stixrud ’22, a member of the women’s fencing team, is majoring in chemical and biological engineering (CBE). Only three out of 60 CBE concentrators are athletes. 

“[Majoring in CBE] is something that you can do if it’s something that you want to do,” Lampson-Stixrud said. “But it is really, really hard — there’s a reason why I’m one of the few athletes in CBE. You have to be willing to lose a lot of sleep, and sleep is necessary to do well in sports. So you have to determine what is necessary to sacrifice.”

Sophia Marsalo ’25, a softball player, found herself making this determination in the middle of a five-class semester of B.S.E. prerequisites. In high school, she loved her engineering classes —  “I would take as many as I could,” she said — and planned to declare CBE at Princeton.  

But Marsalo said she found herself struggling to keep up with work on top of her in-season athletic commitments. A physics midterm on the day her team returned from a tournament in Florida was the tipping point. 

“I just simply didn’t have the time to prepare like I needed to, and I did really poorly,” Marsalo said. “I took a step back and asked, ‘Will I be able to proceed with my life if I don’t pursue engineering?’ Right now, I’m just trying to figure out not only what I like, but what I can do while being an athlete.”

As Marsalo looked to switch tracks, her academic advisor first encouraged her to continue pursuing B.S.E. — suggesting she take a summer class or pass/D/fail a course to lighten her workload — and her professors offered strategies to help her succeed. Still, Marsalo didn’t like the feeling she had in her engineering classes of  “just doing enough to get by.” 

Since dropping engineering to consider psychology or politics, Marsalo has benefitted from the experience of her mostly A.B. teammates. Only one upperclass softball player is on the B.S.E. track. 

“As soon as I said that I was switching to A.B., one of my teammates sat down with me on TigerPath,” Marsalo said. “We’re all similar people and live the same life. Knowing what they liked or thought was easy definitely influenced my decisions.”

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Compared to their non-athlete counterparts, student-athletes see a wider gender gap in engineering. Only 28.6 percent of student-athletes in engineering play on women’s teams, while 43.1 percent of non-athlete B.S.E. students are female, according to data from the Office of the Registrar

Genevieve Fraipont ’23, who plays on the women’s water polo team, serves as a representative for Jock Docs, a peer network for student-athletes on the premedical track. The idea of the group, she said, is to address the specific challenges pre-med student-athletes might face.

“There’s the time commitment, of course — like any STEM major, it’s both rigorous and time-consuming,” Fraipont said. “I think athletes also have a stereotype of not being smart, so maybe freshmen athletes get dissuaded from pre-med. The Jock Doc advising cohort supports athletes in a different way by saying, ‘if you do want to be a doctor, it is doable.’”

Still, as a religion concentrator, Fraipont noted that her science courses often required more of her time. This demand was most pronounced as a first-year when she took organic chemistry.

“I had an exam every other week, whereas most people [on my team] had a couple of essays to do the entire semester,” Fraipont said. “I was like, ‘Why do you guys get to go out every single night, and I’m studying in the Whitman library?’”

In contrast to the idea that expanded time commitments contribute to the underrepresentation of student-athletes in STEM, Jake Intrater ’23, a math concentrator on the heavyweight rowing team, suggested student-athletes might just be less interested in the subjects.  

“The type of person who’s dedicating their life to the point where they’re a math major at Princeton is not going to necessarily also be achieving such competence in a completely different realm,” Intrater said. “Student-athletes have a lot on their plates [and] aren’t necessarily always the most academically motivated.”

Dun, on the other hand, suggested that student-athletes’ interest in the social sciences “might conceivably” be tied to their experiences as members of a team.  

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“Athletes operate as parts of larger groups,” Dun said. “They think about how these groups work, why they work, and effective ways to make them improve. The social sciences are about systems, how they evolve, and how to impact change. That, to me, would be an organic explanation.”

The interdisciplinary nature of some social science departments, according to Britt Masback ’24, might be particularly appealing to student-athletes. Masback, a SPIA concentrator, is on the men’s cross country and track teams.

“I think athletes are more likely to use their time in college to figure out their academic interests, so it makes sense that [SPIA] would be attractive,” Masback said. “It is one of the largest majors, probably because it attracts people from a lot of different angles and interests.” 

“I also don’t think SPIA is seen as the easiest or most manageable major,” Masback added. 

Politics concentrator Ben Bograd ’23, who plays on the men’s soccer team, intended to major in SPIA when he started at Princeton. However, he later realized another department would better allow him to explore his interests in American politics and foreign relations. As Bograd’s plans shifted, his teammates offered helpful advice.

“A lot of the resources that student-athletes have when they first come to college are upperclassmen teammates, more so than your PAA or your RCA,” Bograd said. At the recommendation of a teammate, he took POL329: Policymaking in America in the spring of his first year. Bograd explained that the politics course “helped catalyze [his] interest in policy.”

Despite his positive experience in politics, Bograd noted that certain challenges — like essay deadlines after away games or office hours during practice times — are felt by student-athletes across disciplines.

“Many of us were recruited athletes, and for some students, that might lead to a bias that athletes are less prepared for classes,” Bograd said. “But plenty of the smartest people I know are student-athletes. They’re just as capable.” 

Molly Taylor is a Data and Features contributor for the Daily Princetonian. She can be reached at [email protected].