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It's what inside that really counts. Well, maybe not.

A national study being released today in book form found that those who are attractive in high school are more likely than those with just average or below average looks to go on to earn a four-year college degree. The results are statistically significant, and hold for males and females, and across ethnic and racial groups. The book is Physical Attractiveness and the Accumulation of Social and Human Capital in Adolescence and Young Adulthood: Assets and Distractions (Wiley), by Rachel A. Gordon, professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Robert Crosnoe, the Elsie and Stanley E. (Skinny) Adams Sr. Centennial Professor in Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin; and Xue Wang, who completed her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Pre-publication publicity about the book has focused on its findings that, in comparing similarly bright students, attractive high school students earn higher grades than do other students. But the book also covers college completion -- and the results there cannot be attributed only to the high school grades, the researchers say.

The study involved tracking 8,918 students -- from randomly selected high schools in a national longitudinal data set -- from high school through the post-college years. The group was a representative sample and various socioeconomic factors were used to control the results. For example, controls included parent's educational background (a key predictor of academic success) and level of difficulty of high school courses taken (so that students were compared to their academic peers).

Researchers rated the students as high schoolers on physical appearance using a five-point scale. Gordon explained in an interview that guidelines specified that characteristics generally found by surveys to correlate with societal expectations about attractiveness (such as a symmetrical face) were stressed so that the survey wouldn't be based on the particular views of the researchers on what constitutes physical attractiveness.

About 15 percent of the students were rated as "very attractive," 35 percent as "attractive," 44 percent as "average" and 6 percent as "unattractive" or "very unattractive." The gains in college completion rates were the same for those deemed somewhat and very attractive -- so what mattered was having above average attractiveness, not being at the very top of the scale, Gordon said.

Of the entire pool, about one-third finished a four-year degree, but those rated attractive were three percentage points higher than others to have finished a baccalaureate.

Gordon said that only about one-third of that difference can be attributed to the impact of the higher grades in high school. So attractiveness seems to be a factor in college success.

Further, she said that the overall academic performance of the attractive students would be better but for other factors that the researchers tracked in interviews with the students. Attractive students drink more and have more sex than other students, and these activities are associated with decreased academic performance -- and so brought the attractive and other students closer together. The most successful students (academically) were those who were attractive (bringing, the study finds, friends and connections and support and confidence) but didn't engage in much drinking or sex.

Academics like to think that their classrooms are meritocratic. But Gordon said that the new book builds on past research that has primarily focused on elementary schools, and found that many teachers do seem to favor more attractive pupils. Studies going back many years examined what happens when elementary school teachers are given portfolios and asked to evaluate the potential of students -- with the portfolios identical in describing past educational achievement levels, but differing in whether an accompanying photograph is of a more attractive or less attractive student. The teachers predict higher levels of intelligence and have higher expectations for the more attractive students. Gordon said that a major goal for the new book was to find out whether this appearance-based advantage extends to high school and college -- and that it apparently does. 

Gordon said that she hoped the research would prompt teachers at all levels to think about whether they have "some kind of bias" based on appearance -- even though she acknowledged that the research doesn't show definitively that bias is the key issue. She stressed that the study found no correlation between attractiveness and intelligence -- so in theory there should not be gaps in academic performance. When teachers have high expectations for students, the students are motivated, she said, and those who aren't above average in looks shouldn't be assumed to be less capable. "It's important that we think about ways to change that," she said.

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