February 10, 2011
I know you heard this taunt on the playground when you were a child… “Girls go to college to get more knowledge, but boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider.” I didn’t hear this until I was an adult, by the way. This particular little gem must not have been around in the late 60′s and early 70′s when I was in elementary school. My reaction when I first heard this was something like this… ”good for the girls, they all want to go to college” and then “hey, don’t those girls realize that Jupiter and stupider don’t rhyme?” and then “I have sons and this is offensive!”
We’ve had an interesting phenomena over the past few years. Throughout most of 20th century, men were more likely than women to attend college. In fact, when I began working in higher education in the early 1990′s it was still quite common to treat female students as “high risk” or “underrepresented.” In fact, by the late 1980′s the gender gap had mostly gone away and since 1991, the trend has been for women to enroll in higher education at higher rates than their male peers. This trend has continued until now we again have a gender gap, but it is the opposite of the one educators faced for most of the 20th century.
Not only are women more likely to attend college now, but they also have higher academic achievement as measured by persistence and graduation rates and grade point averages. We have found this to be true at A&M. I looked at several data sets comparing students at A&M and the female students outperform their male peers in cumulative gpa by an average of about 6%. Women are also more likely to persist and graduate from A&M. By these measures, the “at risk” students of the 21st century are surely the boys.
Does this mean the playground taunt is true? Not so fast. Other measures which might be used to decide who is “smarter” favor men. Men typically have a very slight advantage in scores on IQ tests. Usually this is in the range of 3-5 IQ points. Men also have more variance in their IQ scores. In other words males are more likely than females to score very high or very low on IQ scores. Back to our A&M data, we don’t have IQ scores, but we do have SAT scores which are sometimes used as a proxy for IQ tests. Even though female students outperform the men in GPA, men at Texas A&M on average have slightly higher SAT scores. Perhaps it’s not that the girls are smarter, but that they just work harder. Maybe boys aren’t “at risk”, they are just lazy?
So, what is the final conclusion? I personally think you could argue either side of this debate effectively, which probably means the answer is inconclusive. In my experience teaching over the past 20+ years, I have met plenty of incredibly bright and engaging students of each gender. I have also come across plenty of male and female students who truly struggle with school. So, like most gender debates, the problem with the question “which sex is smarter” is that it oversimplifies the issue. All students have the potential to get smarter (see the post on Mindsets).
If we stereotype any student because of his or her gender or ethnicity or any other “category”, we are really missing the point. Besides, it will be Valentine’s Day in just a few days. Can’t we all just get along?