Menus Subscribe Search

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.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

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.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.