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

August 22 • 4:00 PM

The Invention of the Illegal Immigrant

It’s only fairly recently that we started to use the term that’s so popular right now.



August 22 • 2:00 PM

What Can U.S. Health Care Learn From the Ebola Outbreak?

A conversation with Jeanine Thomas, patient advocate, active member of ProPublica’s Patient Harm Facebook Community, and founder and president of the MRSA Survivors Network.


August 22 • 1:22 PM

Two Executions and the Unity of Mourning

The recent deaths of Michael Brown and James Foley, while worlds apart, are both emblematic of the necessity for all of us to fight to uphold the sanctity of human dignity and its enduring story.


August 22 • 10:00 AM

Turbo Paul: Art Thief Turned Art Crime Ombudsman

There’s art theft, there’s law enforcement, and, somewhere in between, there’s Turbo Paul.


August 22 • 8:00 AM

When Climate Change Denial Refutes Itself

The world is warming—and record-cold winters are just another symptom.


August 22 • 6:17 AM

The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.


August 22 • 6:00 AM

Long Live Short Novels

Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments comes in at less than 300 pages long, which—along with a plot centered on a sex-tape scandal—makes it a uniquely efficient pleasure.


August 22 • 4:00 AM

Why ‘Nature Versus Nurture’ Often Doesn’t Matter

Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense to try to separate the social and the biological.


August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


Follow us


The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

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 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

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