When college students are shopping for courses, they want the easy A. They want to be able to skip lectures when they’re too hungover to function. They want exams they can easily cram for. They want extra credit opportunities to fix all their fuck-ups throughout the semester. But they need the right professor to give it to them.

When college students are shopping for professors, they don’t necessarily look for the obvious criteria — engaging lectures, empathy or a lack of horrible coffee breath. More than anything else, students want professors who are sexy.

At least, that’s what NYU professors Dr. Pascal Wallisch and Julie Cachia found when they crunched the data on a million teacher profiles at RateMyProfessor.com.

Rate My Professor is like Yelp for college educators. It’s a resource for students to see how their peers rank the level of difficulty and overall quality of teachers’ courses before they ever step foot into their classroom. It’s a godsend for students, but can be a living hell for professors.

“Rate My Professor can be brutal. It’s like being sent to the stocks, and anybody can read the hurtful, personal things the students say about you,” says Dr. Wallisch, professor of psychology at New York University and author of the study. “Students don’t hold back. They don’t care if you have a bad day. Their position is, ‘we’re paying a lot of money for this, so you better perform.’ The things they say can make you cry.”

Even great professors get terrible reviews on Rate My Professor from time to time. But only the cream of the crop can be awarded with the ultimate symbol of success: the chili pepper.

A Rate My Professor chili pepper is a mark of “hotness.” It is also the greatest indicator of which professors get the highest quality ratings. “It’s hard to get a pepper. More students have to rate you as ‘attractive’ than students who don’t, so most professors don’t have them,” says Dr. Wallisch. “If you have a pepper, your rating is usually really really good.”

However, Dr. Wallisch is not entirely sure which is the cause, and which is the effect in this relationship. Does attractiveness lead to higher quality ratings, or are high-quality professors more confident, and perceived to be more attractive? Either one is entirely plausible.

“Attractive people have a halo effect — people automatically think they’re amazing, kinder and more competent,” Dr. Wallisch says. “Research shows if you’re more attractive, people trust you more, and you literally earn more money. This applies to both men and women.” It’s possible that sexy professors are just assumed to be better at their jobs because they could fulfill a hot-for-teacher fantasy.

However, Dr. Wallisch also suspects that students give chili pepper ratings to professors not as a reflection of their appearance, but as a reward for being a fantastic teacher. His most compelling evidence for this theory: “I have a pepper,” he laughs. “That should suggest it’s not from physical attraction.”

Wallisch and Cachia took on the Rate My Professor research project in response to a rising movement to eliminate professor evaluations. The campaign took root at the University of Oregon, after a school authority found a study that showed trends of sexism in college course evaluations.

Students are biased against their female professors, claimed the study’s author, who coincidentally is a woman with terrible reviews on Rate My Professor (and because they correlate strongly with RMP ratings, presumably poor student evaluation scores, as well).

“Feminists, men and women both, are trying to get rid of evaluations, saying that they’re sexist. Honestly, I would find these arguments more compelling if they came from professors with strong ratings. It’s possible that these are just really bad professors who don’t want their egos to be bruised,” Wallisch says.

Wallisch felt that professors were effectively trying to silence their students — but students are customers who essentially pay the professor’s salary, so their voices deserve to be heard. Beyond that, the claims of “sexism” in evaluations did not ring true with him, or have reliable research to back them up.

So he and Cachia analyzed one million Rate My Professor profiles, and successfully found no evidence for discrimination. Only as an afterthought, they threw in the chili pepper, and were shocked to find its powerful relationship with ultra-high ratings.

Wallisch hopes his research will influence other professors to re-evaluate their baseless crusade against student evaluations. "Student evaluations have many known problems,” Wallisch says. “But the solution is to refine and enhance, not abolish them.”

Wallisch failed to realize what a war of political correctness his research could incite.“It’s always the same narrative: sexism, racism,” he says. “But people are more complicated than that — reducing them to gender and race is rarely appropriate. Apparently this is a political issue, but I don’t have an agenda. As a scientist, I just want answers.”

Now, we finally have one: students don’t discriminate against female professors. But they might discriminate against ugly ones.