In the spotlight
Online education led to lower grades for attractive females, but not for attractive males
How are grades affected by student beauty? The paper described in this column shows that when education is in-person, attractive females and males both receive higher grades, at least in courses where there is plenty of teacher-student interaction. However, when education moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic, the beauty premium for females disappeared, while persistent for males. These findings suggest that the beauty premium is likely to be due to a productive trait for males, and the result of discrimination for females.
Physical attractiveness is important in many aspects in life. Beautiful people tend to earn higher wages, receive higher grades, and are less likely to be sentenced to prison (see Hamermesh 2011 for a summary). However, studies disagree on whether this phenomenon is purely due to tased-based discrimination, or if attractive individuals are more productive, as some studies have shown (cf. Stinebricker et al. 2019).
This study uses the natural experiment of the COVID-19 pandemic to evaluate whether the beauty premium for university grades is due to discrimination or differences in productivity. During the pandemic, Swedish universities were mostly in online mode from March 2020 to September 2021. During this period, teacher access to students’ faces was severely limited due to most teaching being in the form of video lectures. Thus, the scope for beauty-based discrimination was much lower than usual.
The study uses data from five consecutive cohorts of the five-year Industrial Engineering program at Lund University. The first cohort started the program in 2015 and the last in 2019. To avoid students self-selecting into courses, I use only grade data from the first two years of the program, which are mandatory. In total, students take 15 courses during these two years, and the data includes approximately 300 students, of which 37% were women. Among the professors, slightly more than two-thirds were men.
To rate students’ attractiveness, I let a total of 74 individuals aged 17–32 grade publicly available pictures of the students, using an ascending scale from 1 to 10. When providing their ratings, jury members were requested to focus on the facial beauty. Since the number of students in the sample was relatively large, each person rated only one-half of the pictures, meaning that each face received an average of 37 ratings. Importantly, the raters were not familiar with the students beforehand. The average beauty was slightly below 5. Furthermore, I divide courses into quantitative and non-quantitative; mathematics and physics courses are considered quantitative, whereas all other courses are non-quantitative. In the non-quantitative courses, for instance courses in marketing, supply chain management and business administration, examinations are often in the form of group assignments and seminars. This implies a relatively high degree of teacher-student interaction. On the contrary, in mathematics and physics, examinations are mostly in the form of written exams. Also, in these subjects, there is usually more emphasis on manual calculations. Taken together, there is likely to be less room for teachers to discriminate with respect to beauty in the quantitative courses.
Beautiful students get higher grades
Before the pandemic, when all teaching was on-site, attractive students performed significantly better than non-attractive students in the non-quantitative courses. The results hold both for male and female students. However, there was no corresponding effect in the quantitative courses, which is likely to be due to the lower levels of teacher-student interaction in these courses.
When teaching moved online following the onset of the pandemic, the grades of attractive females declined in non-quantitative courses. However, the grade premium for attractive males persisted.
Since teachers cannot readily see the students’ faces when teaching is online, these results suggest that the grade premium for attractive females is likely to be chiefly due to discrimination. The effect persists even after adjusting for the gender of the professor, suggesting that this finding is not fully driven by male professors discriminating in favor of attractive female students.
The finding that the grade premium for attractive males persisted even as teaching went online suggests that attractive males are more productive than less attractive males. While more research is needed to establish precisely the channel behind this finding, from previous psychological literature, it is known that attractive males are more hard-working, and have more open social networks. These traits are linked with higher academic performance (Dion and Stein 1978; Soda et al. 2021), and are likely to persist regardless of the mode of instruction.
Finally, this study implies that there is support for both theories of the origin of the beauty premium. Beauty can be a productive attribute, however, the results suggest that this channel is especially prevalent for men, whereas discrimination dominates for women.
Dion, K. K., and S. Stein. (1978). “Physical Attractiveness and Interpersonal Influence.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 14(1), 97–108.
Hamermesh, D. S. (2011). Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mehic, A. (2022). “Student beauty and grades under in-person and remote teaching.” Economics Letters, 219, 110782.
Soda, G., P. V. Mannucci, and R.S. Burt (2021). “Networks, Creativity, and Time: Staying Creative through Brokerage and Network Rejuvenation.” Academy of Management Journal, 64(4), 1164–1190.
Stinebrickner, R., T. Stinebrickner, and P. Sullivan (2019). “Beauty, Job Tasks, and Wages: A New Conclusion about Employer Taste-Based Discrimination.” Review of Economics and Statistics, 101(4), 602--615