School Suspensions Among Boys May Be Linked to Lower College Attendance

October 31, 2011

Family life plays a larger role in predicting the behavioral problems of boys than it does of girls, which helps explain why boys have lower college-going and graduation rates, a new study finds.

In general, boys tend to score lower than girls on "noncognitive" measures like self-control. They are also more likely to have attention and behavioral problems, and be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

These reasons help explain why boys are far more likely than girls to be suspended from school, the study's authors—Marianne Bertrand, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, and Jessica Pan, an assistant professor of economics at the National University of Singapore—write in a working paper describing their research. The paper, "The Trouble with Boys: Social Influences and the Gender Gap in Disruptive Behavior," was released this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Nearly one boy in four had been suspended for at least one day by eighth grade, while only one out of 10 girls had been, the authors note, based on surveys that tracked American students who entered kindergarten in 1988 and followed them for 12 years after eighth grade. The disparity has worsened over time. Suspension rates for boys went from nearly 16 percent to 24 percent between 1980 and 2006, the latest year studied, while the rates for girls stayed comparatively flat over that period.

As the likelihood of suspensions increases, students' chances of making it to college decrease. Citing previous research, the authors note that one suspension lowers the chance of attending college by 16 percentage points, and of graduating from college by 9 percentage points.

"We suggest that boys' higher tendency to act out, and develop conduct problems, might be particularly relevant to their relative absence in colleges," the authors write.

The report comes amid mounting concern among some policy makers, scholars, and commentators over the performance of boys in the educational system, including at the postsecondary level. Women account for 57 percent of students enrolled on college campuses, according to the most recent federal data.

The authors acknowledge that biological factors may play a role in the discrepancy between boys' and girls' behavior. They also looked for environmental factors and concluded that those found in school accounted for little of the difference.

But their findings did suggest that boys' behavioral problems are "subject to very strong environmental influences, particularly from the home." Parents of girls, for example, are much more likely to have books in the home and to read to their children than are parents of boys. Parents are also more likely to take girls than boys to a concert, or to sign them up for an extracurricular activity, the authors note, citing the U.S. Department of Labor's American Time Use Survey.

Family structure also correlated strongly with the behavioral deficit of boys, they write. "Boys that are raised outside of a traditional family (with two biological parents present) fare especially poorly," the authors say. "Boys raised by teenage mothers also appear to be much more likely to act out."

This latest piece of research is not very likely to settle the question of nature versus nurture in educational success, and the relative importance of family and schools. Recent studies have also pointed to the influence of schools. The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder said in a recent report that students of color are far more likely than white students to be disciplined at school, and that the discipline is often for nonviolent incidents, like truancy, dress-code violations, inappropriate language, classroom disruptions, and talking back.