The troubling gender gap in higher education

Are America’s young men giving up on higher education? A recent Wall Street Journal report pointing out that college males now trail their female peers “by record levels” — women made up nearly 60{3132c872e6c78dc13c400a594a399f7f701f7fca090fe22c84668d12b33a9deb} of the student population in spring 2021 — has raised new concerns. Some blame male alienation and personal struggles, others campus politics. In fact, it’s a complicated issue, and it’s not always about males falling behind. But in many ways, this gender gap does point to the challenge of how to address disadvantage in a group our dominant discourse labels “privileged.”

Women first began overtaking men in college 40 years ago, earning the majority of bachelor’s degrees every year since 1981. While some of this disparity was due to older women returning to school after raising families, the trend also started showing up among high school graduates (exacerbated by the fact that more girls finish high school). It was particularly pronounced in the Black community, partly due to rising male incarceration. But by the 1990s, many educators were also starting to notice the tendency for girls to be more motivated and ambitious among working-class whites.

Partly, the educational patterns are related to occupational ones. Well-paying, stable middle-class jobs held primarily by women, such as nursing or teaching (and, increasingly, even secretarial work), require at least college degrees; men of the same social class have traditionally held well-paying blue-collar jobs, from unionized factory work to construction and plumbing, that don’t require college.

Yet it’s also a fact that opportunities for male high school graduates have been dwindling.

While some men without a college diploma do very well in the tech sector, as entrepreneurs or as workers, these are not typical cases. Many find themselves adrift, sporadically employed, or in low-skill, low-level jobs, their predicament exacerbated by substance abuse and health problems. The evidence that a college diploma in modern society is a key to a better life is overwhelming.

The college gap can also lead to tensions between the sexes in families and in society. Years ago, a state university psychology professor told me she was seeing many instances in which married working-class women who earned a college diploma felt they’d “outgrown” their blue-collar husbands, eventually leading to marriage breakdown. (Discrepancies between attitudes toward gender roles were also implicated.) Meanwhile, on a political level, the tendency is for college-educated women to be a solid progressive constituency while non-college-educated men are a strong conservative base. This estrangement is not healthy.

What to do about it is another matter. Some suggest that modern campus progressivism, which tends to treat men (especially white men) as oppressors, contributes to male flight. The evidence is mixed. Elite schools, generally the progressive vanguard, are the least female-dominated; yet the gap is largest in private liberal arts colleges, which also tend to be hyper-progressive. A school climate in which being a straight white male is seen as backward may indeed factor into male alienation.

More broadly, there are the decadeslong efforts to boost girls and young women in schools and colleges while programs for young men are often suspect as serving the advantaged. Even today, there is more interest in encouraging female students in science and technology than in remedying male shortfalls in other fields. The first step toward addressing a problem is to admit that there’s a problem.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a contributing editor at Reason magazine, are her own.