Center for Policy Research
Towering Intellects? Sizing Up the Relationship Between Height and Academic Success
Stephanie Coffey and Amy Ellen Schwartz
C.P.R. Working Paper No. 244
Amy Ellen Schwartz
Do tall students do better in school? While a robust literature documents higher earnings among taller people, we know little about the potential academic origins of the height earnings gradient. In this paper, we use unique student-level longitudinal data from New York City (NYC) to examine the link between height and academic outcomes, shedding light on underlying mechanisms. The centerpiece of our empirical work is a regression linking academic outcomes to height, measured as a z-score normalized to same grade/sex peers within schools. We estimate a meaningful height gradient for both boys and girls in ELA and math achievement in all grades 3-8. Controlling for observed student characteristics, a one standard deviation (sd.) increase in height for grade is associated with a 3.5% (4.6%) sd. increase in math (ELA) score for boys and 4.1% (4.8%) sd. for girls. The height gradient is not explained by contemporaneous health, while time-invariant student characteristics correlated with height and achievement explain roughly half of the relationship for boys (3/4 for girls). We also find evidence that ordinal height rank relative to peers may have a small effect on achievement conditional on cardinal height. This paper contributes to a long-standing literature on the effect of age-within-grade on achievement. Our estimates suggest that failing to account for relative height may upwardly bias the relationship between relative age and achievement by up to 25%.