Another reason to hate high school

Simone Becchetti | Vetta | Getty Images

Those awkward teenage years may be costing people more than a prom date.

A new research paper finds that attractive young adults have a pay advantage over their less attractive peers—and that advantage starts building as early as high school.

"There may be this kind of snowballing effect across time," said Rachel Gordon, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago and one of the study's co-authors.

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The researchers found that, starting as early as high school, attractive people are rated as more intelligent and promising. They also get higher grades and are more likely to graduate from college.

According to Gordon, those early successes and confidence boosters may create a self-fulfilling cycle, in which the appealing teenagers are more successful as adults.

That boost can have long-term consequences on earnings. Past research has shown that both women and men enjoy a wage bonus if they have above-average looks and can be penalized for having below-average looks. That's along with other economic advantages that accrue to prettier people.

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That the origins of such advantages may start well before adulthood could raise awareness about what high school teachers and administrators can do to mitigate the effects of what they call "lookism," and help less attractive students feel more included and confident, Gordon said.

The findings are based on a federally funded study of youth, she said, along with supplemental data the researchers collected at one specific high school.

The long-running study asked interviewers to rate respondents' attractiveness along with the other data, allowing the researchers to correlate good looks with other achievements.

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Being more attractive in high school also carries a downside, according to Gordon. The researchers found that those teens were more likely to drink heavily and have more sex partners.

Those activities didn't derail their success but may have diminished it, she said.

"The grade advantage would have been even bigger if they hadn't been more likely to behave in that riskier [way]," she said.

—By CNBC's Allison Linn. Follow her on Twitter @allisondlinn and Google or send her an email.