It’s all fun and games until someone is put on academic probation. Isn’t that how the saying goes?
Maybe not, but according to a recent study published by two UC Davis graduates, it might as well be. That is, if you’re a guy.
In their study of 12,350 first-year Canadian students, Jason Lindo and Nick Sanders, with partner Phil Oreopoulos, discovered that women placed on academic probation responded significantly better than men placed on academic probation.
“We found that women, when they’re placed on probation tended to, more often than not, hang around. And after hanging around, tended to improve their grades quite substantially,” said Sanders, who received a Ph.D. in economics. “What men were doing we found more often than not was leaving the university as a byproduct of being placed on probation.”
Lindo and Sanders’ research focused only on students whose GPAs were just above or just below the cutoff for academic probation, allowing for fairer comparisons. Male students see their probability of dropping out of college increase from 3 to 6 percent after being put on probation. Among male students who did well in high school but landed on academic probation in college, the graduation rate decreased by 14.5 percent. No such effect was noted among women.
They believe that students can either be encouraged or discouraged by academic probation, which ultimately determines whether they will stay in school after probation.
“You can think of academic probation as a simple model of introducing a performance standard. It suggests that whenever you subject someone to a performance standard there are going to be two opposing effects. If someone thinks that they will be able to clear the bar, in our case improving their grades, then they’ll work harder to try and meet the performance standard,” said Lindo, who received a bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. in economics from UC Davis. “But if they don’t think they’ll be able to meet the performance standard, they’re more likely give up.”
The study does not provide any firm explanations why the genders respond so differently, though Sanders said that other research indicates that women respond far better than men to positive reinforcements, such as performance standards introduced by academic probation and scholarship programs.
“Introduce a scholarship program that’s performance-based, and women really, really try harder to try and get that carrot. But in these other studies men just don’t seem to respond to positive incentives. And maybe what we’re seeing here is that men are more responsive to negative incentives whereas women are more responsive to positive incentives,” Sanders said.
However, the study found that those who return to school after probation and non-native English speakers do not experience the same dropout rates.
“Being placed on probation increases the probability that native English speakers drop out by approximately 50 percent, but has no impact on students whose native language is not English. At the same time, we find that being placed on probation improves the grades of returning students for all of the subgroups we consider,” Lindo, Sanders and Oreopolous wrote in the study, published in the American Economic Journal.
Lindo and Sanders came up with the idea for the study after attending a lecture at UC Davis about gender differences in response to positive incentives. Initially, they planned to conduct the study using data from UC Davis students, though administrative logistics prevented them from doing so.
Armed with new knowledge of students’ response to academic probation, Lindo, now an economics professor at the University of Oregon, and Sanders, currently working on a post-doctorate degree at Stanford, caution universities from assuming that the popular policy will work on everyone.
“I think that the biggest thing that the study [shows] is that we have to be careful when we’re creating these academic incentives. It’s really interesting to note that there’s this strong gender difference and we don’t know who’s doing the right thing,” Sanders said. “I think academic institutions should have that in mind in the back of their heads when they’re trying to decide what’s the right way to go about any sort of enforcement of academic standards.”
ERIN MIGDOL can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.