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Gay Men on Campus: Smart, Studious, Involved

• June 03, 2009 • 12:00 PM

An economist taking a new look at existing data suggests that gay men do incrementally better at college than straight men, while bisexual women do worse than their peers.

Gay male college students are more motivated to learn and more likely to be mentored than their straight counterparts, and their above-average grades suggest this kind of engagement makes a real difference.

Those are some of the findings of an intriguing new look at sexual minorities on American college campuses, which has just been published in the journal Economics of Education Review. According to the research, which is apparently the first of its kind, gay male undergraduates appear to be doing quite well: Their grade point average is about 2 percent higher than that of straight males at the same institution.

“The thing that really comes out (in the data) is that gay men see academic work as more important than heterosexual men,” said study author Christopher Carpenter, an assistant professor of economics and public policy at the University of California, Irvine. “They were 1.41 times more likely to say their academic work was important.

“That could explain the GPA effect,” he added. “It’s plausible that if gay men perceive their academic work as more important, then they’re trying harder.”

Gay men also spend 40 to 50 percent more time doing volunteer work or participating in student organizations, according to Carpenter’s findings. “It’s possible that these organizations they belong to could include fraternities,” he said. “But I doubt that, because gay men were less likely to say participating in parties was important to them.”

Another possible factor in their success rate: Gay male students were about 13 percent more likely than straight male students to report they had a faculty member or administrator they could talk to about a problem.

For women, the picture is far more mixed. “Like gay men, lesbians and bisexual women were much more likely to find politics and the arts important,” Carpenter said. “The (above-average levels of) connectedness and activism were the same for lesbians and gay men.

“But the other findings were definitely different. Those differences were driven almost entirely by those women who have had both male and female sex partners. Behavioral lesbians appear to do no worse, no better academically than behavioral heterosexuals.

“But behavioral bisexuals (who are overwhelmingly female) do a lot worse. They spend significantly less time studying. They’re much less satisfied with their academic work. They think their academic work is less important than do other women. Bisexual women are not having as good a college experience.”

The study provides interesting context for previous findings that homosexuals in the U.S. are far more likely to be college educated than heterosexuals. A 2004 New Jersey study found 52 percent of same-sex couples in that state include at least one partner with a college degree, compared to 42 percent of opposite-sex couples.

Carpenter obtained his data from the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, one of the few surveys to include questions about students’ sexuality. “In 1997, 1999 and 2001, they did a nationally representative survey of alcohol use on college campuses,” he said. “They had high-quality data from 120 colleges and universities, with thousands of students responding. That’s the data subset I used. (Among a wide range of questions) they asked if you have had sex, and if so, was it with males exclusively, females exclusively, or both.”

The 2001 survey, using those criteria, found that 4.7 percent of male students and 6.2 percent of females were gay, lesbian or bisexual.

Carpenter is quick to concede that reporting on amorous experiences at that stage in life is far from a definitive statement about sexual orientation. For women in particular, having a same-sex partner in college is not necessarily an indication of one’s adult sexuality, and he cautioned about drawing conclusions based on these responses.
“Female sexuality appears to be far more complicated than male sexuality,” he said.

Nevertheless, he was thrilled to stumble across this data, since – apparently due to privacy concerns – there are surprisingly few surveys that ask students about their sexual orientation. He hopes more such surveys will be taken in the future and they will break down what specific organizations these students belong to.

Such information would be “really relevant when considering college and university resource allocations,” he noted. “If (as the increased level of mentorship suggests) we found the positive effects for gay men were driven by access to gay/lesbian/bisexual resource centers, that might mean you should invest more in those centers.”

Or, at the very least, make sure they survive in an era of cutbacks.

“Clearly, gay/lesbian resource centers have become more prominent on campuses over the past couple of decades,” Carpenter noted. “We could be observing that effect. They may increase the connectedness of sexual minority students.”

Carpenter’s findings reinforce several stereotypes: Lesbians are more likely to be involved in athletics than straight women, and gays, lesbians and bisexuals all express more interest in the arts than straight students. Participation in cultural activities is particularly important to gay men, which raises the question of a possible connection between creative expression and academic achievement. Numerous studies have suggested that exposure to the arts, particularly music, helps cognitive development in children; perhaps its impact extends all the way into college.

Interest in the arts may also help explain a puzzling disconnect between gay men’s college achievements and later incomes.
“In a California study, I found no difference in earnings between self-identified gay men and straight men,” Carpenter said. “But there are other studies that find gay men earn a lot less. I don’t think the jury is in yet.

“I find gay men place a lot more importance in the arts. Arts occupations are not well paid, and gay men are disproportionately likely to be employed in those professions.”

In other words, when it comes to income, your GPA may be less important than whether you earn an MBA or an MFA.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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