Most people would agree that physical attractiveness is not a legitimate indicator of a person’s intelligence or ability to perform well in college. And while being attractive may help give a beneficial edge in work and personal life situations, good looks should not be factor in college grading. Performance based tests, class participation, homework, written assignments and other factors are the reasonable standards for instructors grading students. Student looks and evaluations on attractiveness are certainly not part of the criteria in the grading process.
But a new educational study shows otherwise. The study, conducted at Metropolitan State University of Denver by economists Rey Hernández-Julián and Christina Peters, was presented earlier this week at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association. The university has open-enrollment and many nontraditional age students, so youthful good looks seemingly are just a part of the whole on this campus.
The study results found that among female students similarly qualified, women who were physically attractive earned higher grades than other women. The study found no significant correlation for male students between attractiveness and grades. Additionally, there was no difference in study results whether the instructor was a man or a woman.
How did researchers Hernández-Julián and Peters evaluate the women’s attractiveness? Using student identification photographs they had the attractiveness rated on a scale of 1-10 of all students. The researchers recruited people who were neither students nor faculty to rate the students’ attractiveness. Subsequently, they then examined 168,092 course grades the students received using several factors including ACT scores as control for student academic proficiency.
According to a report on Inside Higher Ed, for the women students an increase of one standard deviation in attractiveness was associated with a 0.024 grade increase (on a 4.0 scale).
It is interesting to note the attractiveness gap in grades seems a result of lower grades for less attractive women and not of higher grades for the most attractive women.
Taking advantage of Metropolitan State University’s online course offerings, which many students who take courses in person also take advantage of, the researchers found the lower grades for less attractive women disappeared. Online education grades for less attractive women could not be attributed to any factor that might make them receive lower grades. Male students’ lack of an attractiveness factor applies for in person and online courses.
Researcher Hernández-Julián expressed via email that he found the results of the study “troubling,” giving two possible explanations for the results. “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,” he said.
Hernández-Julián added, “Tools to address the presence of implicit racial bias in policing are becoming increasingly prevalent. Similar tools might be useful in other environments where other implicit biases are prevalent, such as colleges and universities.”
Researchers Hernández-Julián and Peters are not the first academics to recognize a link between attractiveness and college success. In the 2013 book, Physical Attractiveness and the Accumulation of Social and Human Capital in Adolescence and Young Adulthood: Assets and Distractions, researchers from the University of Chicago and University of Austin explored the theory. The results found that students attractive in high school are more likely to continue on to earn a four-year college degree than those with average or below average looks.
Perhaps the human condition gravitates toward what we find attractive. As Hernández-Julián suggests, a tool to identify implicit bias for attractiveness, particularly for college professors, could be a pretty useful tool.
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