- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 25, 2005

Some researchers call them the “Lost Boys.” They are the students you don’t see on college campuses.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) tracks enrollment in all degree-granting institutions by sex. From 1992 to 2000, the ratio of enrolled males to females fell from 82 to 78 boys for every 100 girls. The NCES projects in 2007 the ratio will be 75 males for every 100 females; in 2012, 74 per 100. In short, your son is statistically likelier than your daughter to work in a blue-collar job.

Thomas Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, argues that leaving a generation of boys behind hurts women as well. In a Business Week cover story, Mr. Mortenson observed, “My belief is that until women decide that the education of boys is a serious issue, nothing is going to happen.”

He believes some women feel threatened by even admitting the problem because “it will take away from the progress of women. … What everyone needs to realize is that if boys continue to slide, women will lose too.”

That realization still seems distant among educational experts, who continue downplaying the NCES statistic as well as other data that indicate schools are hurting boys.

Jacqueline King — author of the influential study “Gender Equity in Higher Education: Are Male Students at a Disadvantage?” — is an example. She found 68 percent of college enrollees from low-income families were female; only 31 percent were male.

Yet Miss King insists there is no “boy crisis” in education though data from Upward Bound and Talent Search show a comparable gender gap. (These college-preparation programs operate in high schools and this year received $312.6 million and $144.9 million in tax funding, respectively.) Of the students who receive benefits from those college-preparation programs, about 61 percent are girls, 39 percent boys.

Miss King’s quoted explanation of the gender gaps: “Women make up a disproportionate share of low-income students” who go on to college. Since low-income families presumably produce boys in the same ratio as the general population — worldwide, the ratio is between 103 to 107 boys for every 100 girls — why do so few boys apply for aid? Boys may have a higher dropout rate, or lack interest in higher education.

Miss King comments on the latter explanation: “Male low-income students have some ability in this strong economy to make a decent living with just a high-school diploma.” In particular, she cites the construction industry.

Miss King may be correct. Low-income boys’ gravitation toward manual labor may account for some of the educational gender disparity. What is striking, however, is her apparent dismissal of that disparity as important. She seems to accept the reality that far fewer men than women enroll in college and poor boys enter “the trades” while poor girls become professionals.

Imagine a reversed gender ratio, with 78 girls for every 100 boys entering college. Imagine a generation of poor girls relegated to low status labor while tax funding helps poor boys. It is hard to believe Miss King would be similarly unconcerned.

Nevertheless, by merely acknowledging the situation, Miss King shows far more balance than prominent voices, like the American Association of University Women, which still maintains there is a “girl crisis.”

Fortunately, researchers like Judith Kleinfeld of the University of Alaska see that boys are in distress.

Miss Kleinfeld — author of “The Myth That Schools Shortchange Girls” — says: “In my own college classes, I see a sea change in the behavior of young men.

“In the 1980s, the young men talked in my classes about the same as young women. I know because each semester I measured male and female talk. Now so many young men are disengaged that the more articulate, ambitious women dominate the classroom … and my office hours.”

Miss Kleinfeld tried to trace the problem backward by interviewing high-school students about their future plans. She says, “The young women almost always have a clear, realistic plan — go to college, have a career, often directed toward an idealistic goals about improving the environment.” This clarity of vision was generally absent in young men.

Among those who acknowledge the “boy crisis,” explanations vary and may all be true. Some point to the “feminization” of education over the last decade, which occurred largely in response to a perceived need to encourage girls. But, if boys and girls learn differently, the changes may disadvantage boys.

Others point to explicitly anti-male attitudes — that is, political correctness — within education. The Web site Illinois Loop lists “22 School Practices That May Harm Boys.” One: ” ‘Modern’ textbooks and recommended literature often go to extremes to remove male role models as lead characters and examples.”

Miss Kleinfeld points speculatively to the effect of increased divorce and fatherless homes on the self-image of boys who lack a positive male role-model. About 40 percent of American children now live in homes without their own biological father.

Ultimately, explanations of and solutions to the “boy crisis” will come from exploring combined factors. My solution: Privatize education and give parents or adult students control of it.

The first step to any solution, however, is to acknowledge there is a problem. We are not quite there yet.

WENDY MCELROY

Editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. Author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, “Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century” (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

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