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Gay men earn undergraduate degrees at the highest rate of any group in the U.S., according to a new study on sexual orientation and academic achievement. Roughly 52 percent of gay men in the U.S. have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 36 percent of all adults and about 35 percent of straight men, the study found.
“Across data sets and across the different educational outcomes that I looked at, gay men outpaced straight men by substantial margins,” said Joel Mittleman, the study’s author and an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame. “And on most measures, not just straight men, but also straight women.”
Additionally, 6 percent of gay men in the U.S. have an advanced degree, including a J.D., M.D. or Ph.D., which is about 50 percent higher than for straight men, he found.
Mittleman said that gay men of every racial and ethnic group outperformed their straight male counterparts.
“I think it’s especially striking within the Asian American population, given the fact that they generally have the highest levels of degree attainment in America,” Mittleman said. “Even within that already high-achieving population, gay men earn more college degrees than straight men.”
For many years, LGBTQ+ Americans have been mostly invisible in the data used by social scientists to study population-level patterns of educational attainment, Mittleman said. It wasn’t until the Obama administration that officials added a sexual orientation question to three household surveys, the National Health Interview Survey, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, and the National Crime Victimization Survey, which Mittleman used to analyze degree achievement rates among lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Because of data limitations, he didn’t look at the transgender population.
He also used the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009, which conducted follow-up surveys of the same cohort in spring 2012 when most of the students were in 11th grade, and another administered from March 2016 to January 2017.
Mittleman started conducting the research for his dissertation at Princeton University three years ago, when he sought to bring together data that would provide a comprehensive look at how gender and sexual orientation shape academic achievement.
“For decades, social scientists have been studying the fact that boys tend to underperform girls, and girls and women have had a growing advantage in educational attainment,” Mittleman said. “But although social scientists have looked at all these different axes of variation within gender categories, they haven’t been able to look at sexual orientation. And so we’re in this really exciting moment where sexual orientation measures are finally being added to a lot of our large-scale population representative surveys.”
According to data from the High School Longitudinal Study, the college enrollment rate of gay male high school graduates is about 18 percentage points higher than that of their straight male counterparts.
“In every one of those studies, I find that gay men report remarkably high levels of achievement,” Mittleman said. “Not just in their own self-reporting, but in the official transcripts from high school and college, they have very high GPAs—substantially higher than straight men—and often higher than straight women as well.”
Mittleman said another interesting finding was that across the U.S., lesbian-identified women are more likely to have a bachelor’s degree than straight women; according to the National Health Interview Survey, 44 percent of women who identify as gay have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 33.6 percent of those who identify as straight.
However, Mittleman said that the degree completion rate of lesbian women varies “tremendously” across time. In fact, among contemporary cohorts—people born after 1980—lesbian and straight women graduate at roughly the same rates. One reason for that is changing gender roles.
“Historically, for much of the 20th century, women in this country had to decide between pursuing higher education and a career or pursuing marriage and family within a straight marriage,” Mittleman said. “And so I think, given the choice, lesbian women’s higher education and career would have been less constrained by the pressure to enter heterosexual marriage.”
Today, “contemporary” straight women may also feel less pressured to marry and freer to pursue a college degree and a career.
Where they differ, said Mittleman, is in how they experience high school.
An estimated 26 percent of lesbian girls report having dropped out at least once during high school, surpassing straight girls by 11 percentage points, Mittleman said. Additionally, lesbian girls are slightly more likely than straight girls to report feeling unsafe in high school.
Mittleman also noted that the high degree completion rate among gay men doesn’t mean that they had an “easier” educational experience, either. Gay boys report feeling twice as unsafe in school as straight boys, he said, and 11 percent of gay boys have reported dropping out during high school.
“There’s this big academic advantage, but that is a domain-specific one,” Mittleman said. “It doesn’t mean that gay boys’ social experiences are easy ones. The victimization of gay boys is very well documented, but what I’m arguing is that their victimization should now be understood in the context of their remarkable resilience academically.”
Mittleman noted that his study aligns with research from Harvard University professor Mark Hatzenbuehler and Yale University professor John Pachankis, who formulated the “best little boy in the world” hypothesis, which holds that gay men respond to homophobia by overcompensating in achievement-related domains like education.
Erica Riba, director of higher education and student engagement at the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that works to protect mental health and prevent suicide among teenagers and young adults, said that sometimes anxiety pushes students to succeed academically.
“When you think about what homophobia and bullying does, obviously it can contribute greatly to mental health issues such as anxiety,” Riba said. “And what I find helpful sometimes, as a way to think about anxiety, because often it has sort of this negative lens, is that anxiety can sometimes push us and enforce motivation in us to succeed.”
In a new report from the Proud & Thriving Project, a collaboration between the Jed Foundation, the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals and other groups, 83 percent of LGBTQ+ students surveyed said they had experienced stress over the past six months, compared to 71 percent of non-LGBTQ+ students. Additionally, 67 percent of LGBTQ+ students said they felt lonely or isolated, and 55 percent expressed feelings of hopelessness, compared to 49 percent and 35 percent of non-LGBTQ+ students, respectively.
Riba said a large portion of the mental health issues LGBTQ+ students face stem from discrimination and oppression they receive at home, school and the greater community.
“We have to look at all these factors, but also bring home the idea that we have to make things better and improve these circumstances,” Riba said. “Because we know that this population very much struggles with stress, anxiety, increased risk of depression and suicide.”