The Collegiate Gender Gap
Women are increasingly dominating American higher education.
In “A Generation of American Men Give Up on College: ‘I Just Feel Lost‘,” the Wall Street Journal reports on a growing trend.
Men are abandoning higher education in such numbers that they now trail female college students by record levels.
At the close of the 2020-21 academic year, women made up 59.5% of college students, an all-time high, and men 40.5%, according to enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit research group. U.S. colleges and universities had 1.5 million fewer students compared with five years ago, and men accounted for 71% of the decline.
This education gap, which holds at both two- and four-year colleges, has been slowly widening for 40 years. The divergence increases at graduation: After six years of college, 65% of women in the U.S. who started a four-year university in 2012 received diplomas by 2018 compared with 59% of men during the same period, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
In the next few years, two women will earn a college degree for every man, if the trend continues, said Douglas Shapiro, executive director of the research center at the National Student Clearinghouse.
No reversal is in sight. Women increased their lead over men in college applications for the 2021-22 school year—3,805,978 to 2,815,810—by nearly a percentage point compared with the previous academic year, according to Common Application, a nonprofit that transmits applications to more than 900 schools. Women make up 49% of the college-age population in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau.
This phenomenon has manifested over the course of two-plus decades now and the gap is widening. Initially, most attributed it to different social pressures (in some American subcultures, doing well in school is frowned upon for boys) and economics (there are a plethora of high-paying jobs in construction and other male-dominated fields that compete with college). But something more is clearly going on.
American colleges, which are embroiled in debates over racial and gender equality, and working on ways to reduce sexual assault and harassment of women on campus, have yet to reach a consensus on what might slow the retreat of men from higher education. Some schools are quietly trying programs to enroll more men, but there is scant campus support for spending resources to boost male attendance and retention.
The gender enrollment disparity among nonprofit colleges is widest at private four-year schools, where the proportion of women during the 2020-21 school year grew to an average of 61%, a record high, Clearinghouse data show. Some of the schools extend offers to a higher percentage of male applicants, trying to get a closer balance of men and women.
“Is there a thumb on the scale for boys? Absolutely,” said Jennifer Delahunty, a college enrollment consultant who previously led the admissions offices at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. “The question is, is that right or wrong?”
Ms. Delahunty said this kind of tacit affirmative action for boys has become “higher education’s dirty little secret,” practiced but not publicly acknowledged by many private universities where the gender balance has gone off-kilter.
It’s bizarre, indeed, that after decades of trying to figure out how to attract more women to the STEM fields, the focus is shifting to attracting more men to higher education, period.
At Baylor University, where the undergraduate student body is 60% female, the admission rate for men last year was 7 percentage points higher than for women. Every student has to meet Baylor’s admission standards to earn admission, said Jessica King Gereghty, the school’s assistant vice president of enrollment strategy and innovation. Classes, however, are shaped to balance several variables, including gender, she said.
Ms. Gereghty said she found that girls more closely attended to their college applications than boys, for instance making sure transcripts are delivered. Baylor created a “males and moms communication campaign” a few years ago to keep high-school boys on track, she said.
Among the messages to mothers in the campaign, Ms. Gereghty said: ” ‘At the dinner table tonight, mom, we need you to talk about getting your high school transcripts in.’ “
So, it’s not shocking that 17- and 18-year-old girls are more likely to have their act together on administrative management than their male counterparts. But, again, that’s not a new phenomenon nor, absent considerable evidence to the contrary, salable as a growing one. So it simply doesn’t explain the current trendline.
The college gender gap cuts across race, geography and economic background. For the most part, white men—once the predominant group on American campuses—no longer hold a statistical edge in enrollment rates, said Mr. Mortenson, of the Pell Institute. Enrollment rates for poor and working-class white men are lower than those of young Black, Latino and Asian men from the same economic backgrounds, according to an analysis of census data by the Pell Institute for the Journal.
This befuddles me, although I think it’s largely a function of the bizarre conflation of nonprofit and for-profit institutions into the same category. That’s not obvious from the associated graphic:
But several times in the story they’re talked about as if they’re one and the same.
As to the So what?
No college wants to tackle the issue under the glare of gender politics, said Ms. Delahunty, the enrollment consultant. The conventional view on campuses, she said, is that “men make more money, men hold higher positions, why should we give them a little shove from high school to college?”
Yet the stakes are too high to ignore, she said. “If you care about our society, one, and, two, if you care about women, you have to care about the boys, too. If you have equally educated numbers of men and women that just makes a better society, and it makes it better for women.”
Over the course of their working lives, American college graduates earn more than a million dollars beyond those with only a high-school diploma, and a university diploma is required for many jobs as well as most professions, technical work and positions of influence.
Yet skyrocketing education costs have made college more risky today than for past generations, potentially saddling graduates in lower-paying careers—as well as those who drop out—with student loans they can’t repay.
Social science researchers cite distractions and obstacles to education that weigh more on boys and young men, including videogames, pornography, increased fatherlessness and cases of overdiagnosis of boyhood restlessness and related medications.
Men in interviews around the U.S. said they quit school or didn’t enroll because they didn’t see enough value in a college degree for all the effort and expense required to earn one. Many said they wanted to make money after high school.
The declining economic utility of college has been a longstanding topic of discussion here. The cost of attendance has skyrocketed compared to inflation and, while the job market increasingly requires a bachelorette degree for entry the wages aren’t keeping pace. But, unless the insinuation is that men are figuring this out way faster than women—a dubious assumption—it doesn’t explain the divergence.
And this sort of thing doesn’t help much:
Men dominate top positions in industry, finance, politics and entertainment. They also hold a majority of tenured faculty positions and run most U.S. college campuses. Yet female college students are running laps around their male counterparts.
The University of Vermont is typical. The school president is a man and so are nearly two-thirds of the campus trustees. Women made up about 80% of honors graduates last year in the colleges of arts and sciences.
These are apples and oranges comparisons. The male dominance of the leadership sector, most of whom graduated college thirty or more years ago and before this trend began, really has nothing to do with current graduation and matriculation rates.
The young men who enroll lag behind. Among University of Vermont undergraduates, about 55% of male students graduate in four years compared with 70% of women. “I see a lot of guys that are here for four years to drink beer, smoke weed, hang out and get a degree,” said Luke Weiss, a civil engineering student and fraternity president of Pi Kappa Alpha at the campus.
Female students in the U.S. benefit from a support system established decades ago, spanning a period when women struggled to gain a foothold on college campuses. There are more than 500 women’s centers at schools nationwide. Most centers host clubs and organizations that work to help female students succeed.
Young women appear eager to take leadership roles, making up 59% of student body presidents in the 2019-20 academic year and 74% of student body vice presidents, according to W.H. “Butch” Oxendine, Jr., executive director of the American Student Government Association.
“Across all types of institutions, particularly two-year institutions, but also extending into public and private four-year institutions, women dominate student government executive boards,” Mr. Oxendine said.
So, again, this seems to be grasping at straws. Are today’s men really that much more likely to be distracted by drugs and pornography than their generational forebears? Is the creation of clubs designed to help women succeed really having such an outsized impact that the men don’t have a chance? Color me skeptical.
Young men get little help, in part, because schools are focused on encouraging historically underrepresented students. Jerlando Jackson, department chair, Education Leadership and Policy Analysis, at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Education, said few campuses have been willing to spend limited funds on male underachievement that would also benefit white men, risking criticism for assisting those who have historically held the biggest educational advantages.
“As a country, we don’t have the tools yet to help white men who find themselves needing help,” Dr. Jackson said. “To be in a time when there are groups of white men that are falling through the cracks, it’s hard.”
Keith E. Smith, a mental-health counselor and men’s outreach coordinator at the University of Vermont, said that when he started working at the school in 2006 he found that men were much more likely to face consequences for the trouble they caused under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
In 2008, Mr. Smith proposed a men’s center to help male students succeed. The proposal drew criticism from women who asked, “Why would you give more resources to the most privileged group on campus,” he said.
Again, absent more than anecdotes and a couple of cherry-picked quotes that seem to serve an ideological agenda, I’m skeptical that this is the reason for the gap.