Colleges Have a Guy Problem

The Atlantic

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A recent viral news story reported that a generation of young men is abandoning college. This is the largest female-male gender gap in the history of higher education, and it’s getting wider. This particular gender gap hasn’t been breaking news for about 40 years. But the imbalance reveals a genuine shift in how men participate in education, the economy, and society.

Although they are still playing catch-up in the labor force, and leadership positions such as chief executive and senator are still dominated by men, women have barnstormed into colleges. Still, gender inequality on something as important as education presents problems, no matter what direction the inequality points in. While men are more likely to go to college than they were 10 years ago, something seems to be restraining the growth of male enrollment. In 1970, men accounted for 57 percent of college and university students.

«The fact that the gender gap is even larger today, in the opposite direction, than it was when Congress determined that we needed a new law to promote equal education seems like something we should pay attention to,» says Richard Reeves, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who is writing a book about men and boys in the economy. education gender gap isn’t just a college phenomenon. Long before female students outnumber men on university campuses, they outperform boys in high school. Girls in elementary school spend more time studying than boys, are less likely to misbehave than boys, and get better grades than boys across all major subjects.

«For decades, guys have been less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to enroll in college immediately, and less likely to finish college and earn a diploma,» Reeves told me. «There is a linear educational trajectory for girls and women. Boys and men tend to zigzag their way through adolescence». Sociologists and cultural critics have taken many dubious stabs at why the gender gap in education is growing.

Some have blamed the feminist dogma of the education system and the inherently distracting presence of girls in classrooms. The sociologist Kathryn Edin has written that men without college degrees in deindustrialized America have been adrift for decades. As 20th-century institutions have crumbled around them, these men have withdrawn from organized religion. This male haphazardness might be reproducing itself among younger generations of men who lack stable role models to point the way to college.

Single-parent households have grown significantly more common in the past half century, and 80 percent of those are headed by mothers. Suggesting that women can’t teach boys would be absurd. But the absence of male teachers might be part of a broader absence of men in low-income areas who can model the path to college for boys who are looking for direction. A 2018 study of social mobility and race led by the Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that income inequality between Black and white Americans was disproportionately driven by bad outcomes for Black boys.

The few neighborhoods where Black and white boys grew up to have similar adult outcomes were low-poverty areas that also had high levels of «father presence.» That is, even boys without a father at home saw significantly more upward mobility when their neighborhood had a large number of fathers present. High-poverty areas without fathers present seem to be doubly impoverished, and boys who live in these neighborhoods are less likely to achieve the milestones, such as college attendance, that lead to a middle-class salary or better. The college gender gap is happening not just in the U. «In almost every rich country, women earn the majority of bachelor’s degrees,» Claudia Goldin, a historian and economics professor at Harvard University, told me. As a general rule, almost every country that gives men and women equal access to education discovers, within a few decades, that women are doing better.

The international nature of the gender gap invites biological explanations, which should be neither overstated nor categorically dismissed. Prominent psychologists, including Angela Duckworth, the author of Grit, have found that, while girls and boys have similar IQ scores, girls get better grades thanks to their superior self-control and ability to delay gratification. But that just begs the question of where girls’ superior self-control really comes from. Perhaps the fact that girls’ brains mature faster than boys’ gives them an early advantage in elementary school, which shapes the culture of success throughout their education.

Perhaps subtle hormonal differences, particularly in testosterone levels, affect how boys perceive the risk of ending their education. The implications of the college gender gap for individual men are troubling but uncertain. Those divisions seem likely to worsen if the parties’ attitudes toward each other calcify into gender stereotypes. «My biggest worry is that by the time policy makers realize that gender inequality in college is a problem, we’ll have hit a point where college will seem deeply effeminate to some men in a way that will be hard to undo,» Reeves said.

«That’s why we need both parties to offer a positive vision of college and a positive vision of masculinity. If male identity is seen, by some, as being at odds with education, that’s a problem for the whole country». The solutions to the college gender gap should be as broad as the causes. Specific policies to reduce childhood poverty could increase high-school graduation rates.

He Wall Street Journal reports that some colleges are putting their finger on the scale for male applicants, to avoid having their schools become 70 percent female. But it’s a mistake to exclusively see the female-male gender gap as a college problem. «If we wait until college to intervene, it’s too late,» says Thomas Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. «The pivot point is in adolescence, and the foundation is laid in the early grades.» This gender gap is an economic story, a cultural story, a criminal-justice story, and a family-structure story that begins to unfold in elementary school.

The attention-grabbing statistic that barely 40 percent of college grads are men seems to cry out for an immediate policy response. But rather than dial up male attendance one college-admissions department at a time, policy makers should think about the social forces that make the statistic inevitable.

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Source: Derek Thompson | The Atlantic

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