Student Success

Girls Who Work Alongside High-Achieving Boys Suffer Lower Self-Confidence

male and female students in class

A new working report has suggested that proximity to "high-achieving" boys decreases the likelihood that girls will go on to complete a bachelor's degree; instead they'll choose "junior college degrees." Proximity to high-achieving boys also negatively affected the girls' math and science grades in the short term; and in the long term, it decreased labor force participation and increased the likelihood of having a baby before age 18, according to the researchers.

The report, "Girls, Boys and High Achievers," published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), was developed by three researchers from Cornell University and New York University.

The fallout also included lower self-confidence and aspirations and attraction to more risky behavior (such as drug and alcohol use, unprotected sex and smoking).

Those girls most affected fell into three groups: 1) the ones in the bottom half of the ability distribution (based on the results of the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, which gauges understanding of single-word vocabulary); 2) those with at least one college-educated parent; and 3) those attending a school in the upper half of the socioeconomic distribution. Depending on which group a girl might be categorized into, the probability of obtaining a bachelor's degree dropped by between 2.2 and 4.5 percentage points for every standard deviation in the percent of high-achieving boys she worked alongside. A high-achieving boy was defined as somebody who lived with at least one parent with some "post-college" education.

The work was based on data pulled from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent to Adult Health, a survey designed to be nationally representative of students in grades 7 through 12 in a representative set of schools in the United States that also includes home elements. Various phases of the original surveying were repeated in "waves" over the next several years. The data used for this project covered the first and fourth waves, in 1994-1995 and 2007-2008, respectively, resulting in a sampling of some 10,853 students, including 5,899 females and 4,954 males from 118 schools. The average age was 16 in July 1995. By the time 2008 arrived, the "vast majority" of these students had achieved a high school diploma or GED; and about a third had finished their bachelor's degrees.

Why should greater exposure to high-achieving boys lead girls to switch from a four-year to a two-year college degree? The researchers offered a few observations: "It could be that teachers pay less attention to girls when faced with boys who perform well in school. Alternatively, it could be that girls are more likely to feel discouraged in the face of competition from boys. Nor can we rule out that their parents interact differently with schools, although this must occur in such a way that is detrimental to girls."

Although the researchers held off on offering recommendations to counter-balance the effects they saw, they did make one suggestion: targeting "more marginal girls" with policies designed to "increase their ambition and self-confidence" or to "decrease their exposure to these boys."

The analysis also found that greater exposure to "high-achieving" girls boosted bachelor's attainment in the lower half of the ability distribution, those who lack a college-educated parent, and those attending a school in the upper half of the socio-economic distribution.

The researchers also found that the outcomes for boys was quite different; they were unaffected by "high-achievers" of either gender.

The report suggested that future research look at how both genders are affected by competing with varying proportions of high-performing males and females.

The working report is available for a small cost on the NBER website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.