The Icky Factor That May Be Determining Your Grade

In today’s edition of “Not-Terribly-Surprising-But-Still-Really-Depressing News,” a new study has revealed that physical attractiveness affects female students’ grades significantly more than those of their male peers. The study, conducted by Rey Hernández-Julián and Christina Peters, economics professors at Metropolitan State University of Denver, found that female college students who are perceived as attractive receive better grades than those who are seen as less attractive, regardless of whether their professors are male or female. This connection between physical beauty and grades doesn’t extend to male students.

This study, presented at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association on Monday, isn’t the first to analyze how physical attractiveness affects people’s academic achievement. Research published in 2013, for example, found that students who are rated as having above-average attractiveness earn higher grades in high school and are more likely to complete a four-year college degree.

What’s significant about this new research is that it seeks to isolate physical attractiveness from other factors linked to attractiveness that might influence success. For example, one might argue that the higher grades of students who are perceived to be attractive could be due, not directly to their appearance, but to the fact that their appearance has led them to receive more attention and encouragement than other students, which, in turn, could make them more likely to engage with professors, seek help, or ask questions, all of which would contribute to academic success. Hernández-Julián and Peters’ research attempts to control for these issues by evaluating students’ grades in both in-person and online settings. By comparing how students fared when professors could see them to how they fared when they could not, the researchers were able to track how much appearance itself — separate from the subtle ways that appearance might shape personality and performance — influences professors’ grading.

And what they found was, as Hernández-Julián told Inside Higher Ed, “troubling.” Hernández-Julián and Peters began by having an outside party rate student identification photos on a ten point scale of attractiveness. They then analyzed over 168 thousand student grades, alongside factors like standardized test scores as measures for general academic ability. The economists divided female students into three groups: “average, more attractive and less attractive.” Students in the “more attractive” group showed a very small increase in grades over those in the “average” group. But women in the “less attractive” group showed a much larger gap, earning on average 0.067 grade points less than other students. This data suggests that what’s going on here is a less a matter of professors awarding extra points to attractive students, but of professors giving lower grades (albeit unconsciously) to female students whom they see as less attractive.

When Hernández-Julián and Peters analyzed the grades of female students grouped the same way in online classes (in which professors didn’t see what students looked like), they found that the achievement gap between “more attractive” and “less attractive” students disappeared, demonstrating, the economists suggest, that what is at stake here really is women’s appearance, and not some other factor that might impact their actual academic performance. Significantly, when Hernández-Julián and Peters evaluated male students’ grades according to their attractiveness, they found that physical appearance didn’t seem to affect grades in either direction, in person or online.

In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Hernández-Julián offered two potential explanations for the discrepancy in female students’ grades:

Is it that professors invest more time and energy into the better-looking students, helping them learn more and earn the higher grades? Or do professors simply reward the appearance with higher grades given identical performance? The likely answer, given our growing understanding of the prevalence of implicit biases, is that professors make small adjustments on both of these margins.

Image: Giphy