Amidst all these discussions of Future Desperate Housewives of the Ivy League, there’s another story that’s finally getting some notice: while some women are mommy-tracking themselves while still in college, many men aren’t in college, period.
Currently, 135 women receive bachelor’s degrees for every 100 men. That gender imbalance will widen in the coming years, according to a new report by the U.S. Department of Education.
This is not really a new story: Women were already graduating from college in higher numbers than men in 1992, when the American Association of Unviersity Women (AAUW) raised a false alarm about girls being “shortchanged” by gender bias. But in recent years the imbalance has been getting worse. For more on this ongoing debate and the data, see my 2001 article in Reason, Where the Boys Are. See also University of Alaska psychologist Judith Kleinfeld’s excellent paper, The Myth That Schools Shortchange Girls: Social Science in the Service of Deception.
Why is this hapenning? And is it a problem? One common explanation is that men are off doing lucrative things that don’t require a college diploma — launching Internet start-ups, for instance, or getting jobs in the blue-collar trades. (But how many of these men really do well? Plumbers and welders may make good money, but a lot of men in the trades face chronic job insecurity and low income. As USA Today points out, “The unemployment rate for young men ages 20-24 is 10.1%, twice the national rate”.) There are also more men in the armed services. Clearly a college diploma is not the only path to a good life. But there is a lot of evidence that many of the “missing men” are in trouble. By the way, if you look at the statistics, it’s clear that the college gender gap is most pronounced among African-Americans (for some years now, black females in college have outnumbered black men about 2:1) and low-income people.
In addition to gender differences in enrollment, men seem to fare worse once they do get to college. According to federal statistics, of the men who entered college in 1996, only 28% graduated in 4 years or less, compared to 38% of the women; the six-year graduation rate was over 58% for women but only 52% for the men.
That brings us back to the “why.” Some observers, such as Kleinfeld, say that a big part of the problem is that young men today tend to be less motivated and less focused than their female peers. (Father absence may be one factor in this.) Others see gender bias in the education system. Says Reynolds:
There seems little doubt that universities have become less male-friendly in recent decades, to the point of being downright unfriendly in many cases. The kind of statements that are routinely made about males and masculinity in classrooms and hallways would get professors fired if they were made about blacks, gays, or many other groups. Sexual-harassment policies start with the presumption that men are guilty, and inherently depraved. And colleges now come at the tail-end of an educational system that is (compared to previous decades) anti-male from kindergarten on, meaning many males probably just want to get out as soon as they can.
Some of the people I interviewed for my Reason article expressed the same view. Bret Burkholder, a counselor at Pierce College in Puyallup, Washington, who also works with younger boys as a baseball coach, told me, “If you listen to 10- or 11-year-old boys, you will hear that school is not a very happy place for them. It’s a place where they’re consistently made to feel stupid, where girls can walk around in T-shirts that say ‘Girls rule, boys drool,’ but if a boy makes a negative comment about girls he’ll have the book thrown at him.”
There is some evidence to back this up. Here are some data from a 1990 survey of high school students conducted for the AAUW, and spun as evidence of girls’ precariously low self-esteem. When asked, “Who do teachers think are smarter, boys or girls?”, 69% of boys and 81% of girls said “girls.” 81% of boys and 89% of girls thought teachers complimented girls more often, while about 90% of both boys and girls said that teachers punished boys more often. On the question, “Who do teachers like to be around?,” 73% of boys and 80% of girls said, “Girls.” (See Kleinfeld’s study, Table 16, for these data.) On the other hand, it is also worth nothing that when the children are asked about their own experiences, boys are only slightly less likely than girls to say that teachers listen to them, that they often get called on and encouraged, and that discipline and grading at their school are fair. I think it’s quite an exaggeration to claim, as some do, that males have become “the second sex” in the educational system as a whole. I find male victimism to be as off-putting as the female variety.
One more point to ponder: While conservatives commonly point to political correctness and “feminization” as factors that discourage male involvement in the educational system, few pay attention to the effects of the traditionally masculine jock culture that holds learning in contempt as a “girlie” thing.
The bottom line? This is an issue that needs to be looked into. For years, academic organizations (not just feminist ones but mainstream ones such as the Association of American Colleges) have been trumpeting reports about an alleged “chilly climate” for women on campus. Maybe it’s time to pay a little attention to the guys? Glenn Reynolds suggests congressional hearings. I have my doubts about the efficacy of such ventures, but if no one else gets moving, it could be, at least, a start.