Metropolitan State University of Denver campus (Photo courtesy of MSU Denver)

Two economists knew that appearance matters: Studies had shown all sorts of benefits linked to attractiveness, everything from dating to salaries to ratings of how well professors teach classes. But they weren’t sure whether better-looking people earn more money and are more likely to be considered smart just because they’re easy on the eyes. Maybe factors, such as confidence or greater effort, were the real reason for the differences studies had found.

Rey Hernández-Julián and Christina Peters set out to test that at Metropolitan State University of Denver. What they found surprised them.

Students who were rated as attractive got better grades than those who were not. But when the researchers looked at courses that were online-only, they didn’t find the same benefit for either men or women.

The better-looking the students are, the greater the difference in grades between online and traditional classes, Hernández-Julián explained, with the students getting better grades in classes where they could be seen.

“We really thought it was just that more attractive people have other personality traits, other skills,” Peters, an associate professor at MSU Denver, said. “But it does appear to be some type of actual discrimination on the part of the professors. That surprised us.”

Rey Hernández-Julián (Photo courtesy MSU Denver) Rey Hernández-Julián (Photo courtesy MSU Denver)

In their study, presented this week at the American Economic Association and reported in Inside Higher Ed, they tried to tease out the reasons behind earlier findings on appearance. Was it really the appearance, or were the effects caused by other things? For example, they wrote about the advantage better-looking professors had when rated by students: “Could it be that looks are directly productive because they encourage students to attend class and pay attention?

“Or alternatively, in the context of the hypothesis that this paper tests, do more attractive professors receive higher ratings both because they pay more attention to their looks and they also pay more attention to their students and their work?

“In other words, is attractiveness merely a proxy for other unobservable traits of the professor?”

[No, good looks don’t win elections]

Christina Peters (Photo courtesy of MSU Denver) Christina Peters (Photo courtesy of MSU Denver)

With this study, they found a way to answer those kinds of questions about whether appearance matters, by focusing on the student population at their own institution.

Because they could use ID photos and grade data at MSU Denver, a public, open-enrollment university with about 22,000 students — and they could compare settings in which students were seen with those in which they were not — they studied the impact of a student’s appearance on their academic performance as a way to delve into the larger issue. They recruited a diverse group of people who weren’t students or faculty members to anonymously rate the attractiveness of the photos on a scale of 1 to 10. The final sample included more than 6,500 female and male students.

The effect on grades was small, compared with some other studies in other aspects of life. It wasn’t the difference between an A and D, Peters noted, or anything so extreme — more like half the difference from an A-minus to a B-plus for less attractive female students.

But she thinks the results are still very telling. “It’s speaking to these larger questions about the implicit biases we have in our everyday lives in all areas,” Peters said.

“… It’s a difficult policy question: If professors have these biases, how can we fix that?”