The Minnesota Office of Higher Education recently posted the inevitable culmination of a trend: Last year for the first time, women earned more than half the degrees granted statewide in every category, be it associate, bachelor, master, doctoral or professional. Cause for celebration – or for concern?
Before you answer, consider the perspective of Jim McCorkell, founder of Admission Possible, a St. Paul program to help low-income high school kids prepare for college. Last year, 30% of the students were boys. This fall, that has inched up to 34% but only because “we actually did a little affirmative action,” McCorkell says. “If we had a tie (between a male and a female applicant), we gave it to a boy.”
As women march forward, more and more boys seem to be falling by the wayside, McCorkell says. Not only do national statistics forecast a continued decline in the percentage of males on college campuses, but the drops are seen in all races, income groups and fields of study, says policy analyst Thomas Mortenson, publisher of the influential Postsecondary Education Opportunity newsletter in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Since 1995, he has been tracking — and sounding the alarm about — the dwindling presence of men in colleges.
College administrators shy away from the term “affirmative action,” a murky concept, rooted in redressing historic inequities and loaded with legal implications. Yet the imbalances do trouble some admissions officials.
So just as they might consider race or geographical diversity in building freshman classes, they similarly look for gender parity.
Nationally, the male/female ratio on campus today is 43/57, a reversal from the late 1960s and well beyond the nearly even splits of the mid-1970s. For years, the trends have developed in plain view — not ignored exactly, but typically accompanied by some version of the question: Isn’t this a sign of women’s progress?
Today, though, the blue-collar jobs that once attracted male high school graduates are drying up. More boys are dropping out of high school and out of college. And as the gender gap widens, concern about the educational aspirations of males appears to be gaining traction, albeit cautiously.
But even as evidence of a problem — a crisis, some say — mounts, “there’s a complacency about this topic,” McCorkell says.
There has been no outcry, for example, on the scale of a highly publicized 1992 report by the American Association of University Women, How Schools Short-Change Girls, which compiled reams of research on gender inequities.
That study “really … got people to focus on girls … (but) there is no big network that protects the needs of boys,” says family therapist Michael Gurian, author of the just-published The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons from Falling Behind in School and Life, which argues that elementary and secondary schools aren’t meeting the developmental needs of boys.
The minefields ahead
And the needs of boys and girls are different, says Kimberly Tsaousis, a college-prep adviser who works mostly with low-income minorities at Cleveland High School in Seattle. “Girls are way more likely to just pay attention” during advising sessions, she says. “It’s almost less cool” for boys to show interest in college.
Talk of gender is fraught with social, legal and political minefields. Witness the outcry after Harvard President Lawrence Summers remarked in January that women might be underrepresented in sciences because of innate differences in abilities.
For one thing, female inequities persist. There’s still a pay gap. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women on average earned 79 cents to each dollar paid to male counterparts in 2014.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that most educators exploring the issue have an eye toward equilibrium.
Maine’s Department of Education, for example, created a task force to look closely at boys’ poor academic performance and found a ratio of 154 women for every 100 men in the state’s colleges and universities in 2010, the greatest gap of any state. But the final report, to be released this fall, will recommend policies and strategies to promote gender-equitable education. “We very quickly decided … we wanted to make sure we did not neglect” girls even while exploring obstacles facing boys, says deputy commissioner Patrick Phillips.
The University of Washington recently started a college-prep program for boys, but administrator Thomas J. Calhoun Jr. notes the university also supports girls-only programs, including one aimed at increasing women in engineering.
And while President Bush in his State of the Union address singled out boys when he unveiled a$150 million initiative, led by Laura Bush, to dissuade kids from joining gangs, an Oct. 27 conference hosted by the first lady is called “Helping America’s Youth.”
Federal laws pose additional challenges. Under No Child Left Behind, for example, schools must track data by race and gender, which helps educators pinpoint vulnerable populations.
Yet because of potential conflicts with federal laws created to ensure gender and racial equity, educators “can’t target resources to where they see the need,” says Deborah Wilds of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds college scholarships for underrepresented kids. “You know that the kids least likely to graduate are a particular gender or ethnic background, but then you have to walk a fine line in how you serve them.”
‘Value in . . . equal numbers’
Most of those tracking the issue agree that getting males into the college pipeline is best addressed in elementary and secondary schools.
Even so, the disparities on campuses worry some admissions officials, particularly at liberal arts colleges where gaps are widest.
“We think there’s value in having equal numbers,” says Jim Bock, admissions dean at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College. Last year, the school admitted more women than men, but it admitted a greater percentage of the male applicants than female. The student body’s male/female breakdown is about 48/52 overall.
In interviews, several college administrators, including Bock, said they would not admit a male over a better-qualified female. But they do try to build a diverse class — an idea that echoes the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling on race-based affirmative action.
That ruling struck down a University of Michigan formula that gave extra points to minorities because of their race. But the justices also ruled that schools could consider race as one of many factors because achieving diversity on college campuses is an important goal. In 2000, a federal judge told the University of Georgia to stop awarding bonus points to males (and minorities) in admissions.
A study this year of admissions processes at 13 liberal arts schools, most with a predominantly female applicant pool, found that gender was “not a significant determinant” in admissions decisions. When a gender preference for males emerged, it occurred at historically female campuses where the share of female applicants had reached 55% or more, authors Sandy Baum and Eban Goodstein say.
The authors neither advocate nor oppose affirmative action, but as males grow increasingly shorter in supply, “we should be talking about whether it’s reasonable to give preferences to men,” says Baum, a Skidmore College professor.
UCLA higher education professor Linda Sax says such a discussion should address what impact, if any, the gender composition of a college has on men and women. To find out, she examined data from more than 17,000 students at 204 four-year colleges.
Preliminary results show that on campuses that were predominantly female, both males and females got higher grades. Predominantly female campuses also led to a “significant increase” in men’s commitment to promoting racial understanding and led males to more liberal views on abortion, homosexuality and other social issues, her research found.
“What we’re talking about here is the impact of women’s attitudes and values,” Sax says.
For his part, author Gurian says one reason colleges may fail to attract more males is precisely because they are more geared to female learning styles and interests. Colleges that want to compete for the dwindling pool of males should emphasize male interests, such as sports, he says, and offer more male role models.
But meaningful change must take place well before the college years, says Gurian, who acknowledges a personal interest in the subject: He has two daughters. “We all know a boy that’s struggling,” he says. “If we create a generation of men who aren’t getting an education, that’s bad for women.”