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Lasting Benefits of College Sports for Student Athletes
Gallup Blog

Lasting Benefits of College Sports for Student Athletes

by Jessica Harlan

Story Highlights

  • NCAA student-athlete alumni thrive at greater rates in 4 of 5 elements
  • Student-athletes match non-athletes in the remaining element

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- New research from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and Gallup finds that former NCAA student-athletes who graduated from college between 1975 and 2019 were more likely to be "thriving" in four of the five key areas of wellbeing than nonathletes were. These include the purpose, social, community and physical domains. The two groups were equally likely to be thriving in the fifth element -- financial. Differences in wellbeing between student-athletes and non-athletes are seen among both minority and white alumni.

Levels of Thriving in Five Areas of Wellbeing Among U.S. College Graduates
% Thriving in Each Element of Wellbeing
Purpose Social Financial Community Physical All five
% % % % % %
NCAA participation overall
Former NCAA student-athletes 54 54 41 49 42 12
Non-athlete alumni 49 47 40 43 32 9
NCAA participation by race
Minority former NCAA student-athletes 55 58 36 48 43 10
Minority non-athlete alumni 45 48 34 38 28 8
White former NCAA student-athletes 54 53 43 50 41 13
White non-athlete alumni 50 46 42 45 33 9
Gallup Alumni Survey

Gallup's measurement of wellbeing is based on years of global and national research, asking 10 questions to gauge wellbeing in five elements:

  • Purpose Wellbeing: Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  • Social Wellbeing: Having strong and supportive relationships and love in your life
  • Financial Wellbeing: Effectively managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  • Community Wellbeing: The sense of engagement you have with the areas where you live, liking where you live and feeling safe and having pride in your community
  • Physical Wellbeing: Having good health and enough energy to get things done on a daily basis

Using this assessment, Gallup categorizes respondents as "thriving," "struggling" or "suffering" in each element of wellbeing. Someone who is categorized as "thriving" is considered to have strong and consistent wellbeing in that element of their lives.

Gallup's wellbeing research finds that thriving in multiple areas of wellbeing is related to a variety of positive life outcomes, including life evaluation and health. Those who are thriving in all five areas of wellbeing are considered to have holistic wellbeing and experience the greatest benefits. Prior research has found that they are 36% more likely to report a full recovery after an illness, injury or hardship and are also more than twice as likely to say they always adapt well to change. This study found that the percentage of former college athletes who are thriving in all five elements of wellbeing (12%) is also greater than that of non-athletes (9%).


The Gallup Alumni Survey has previously demonstrated the long-term impacts of the student experience on alumni outcomes. The present work demonstrates that in one key outcome (wellbeing), NCAA athletics participation is related to long-term, positive impacts among alumni.

Data for this study were collected prior to the current COVID-19 pandemic, and thus the extent to which future alumni will have similar outcomes is not known. Increasingly challenging university funding situations may impact multiple student experiences, including opportunities for NCAA athletics participation. While grappling with funding concerns, universities across the U.S. may be considering how to support the wellbeing of their students both during their college education and after graduation. Key experiences that universities may consider targeting both during and after the pandemic are those that communicate caring and belonging. College athletics programs may be one model universities can examine for building a campus-wide sense of caring, belonging and support for wellbeing.

Learn more about the outcomes of NCAA student athletic participation in the full report.

Learn more about how the Gallup Alumni Survey works.

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