Women’s share of college enrollment is at an all-time high as education researchers continue to debate what is causing the trend of more women than men going to college, and what the future impact of the trend could be.
“It is a topic of some conversation within the admissions community, and they certainly are looking at it,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “I don’t think we have a proper understanding of what would be at the root.”
“It’s well-documented that there’s a female majority on college campuses,” said Jacqueline King, director of the American Council on Education’s Center for Policy Analysis and author of a 2006 study on the topic. “I think where there’s not a consensus is why this is the case.”
Historically, more men than women have graduated college. In 1870, the first year a national survey was conducted, 7,993 men and 1,378 women received bachelor’s degrees. But by the 1980s, women were outpacing men and that trend has continued through today, even though overall numbers for both groups continue to rise.
In the 2003-04 school year, 595,425 men received bachelor’s degrees, compared with 804,117 women, according to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. The department’s fall 2004 numbers show that 57.2 percent of college enrollees were women — the highest percentage ever.
The department estimates that by the time the 2013-14 school year rolls around, women receiving degrees will outnumber men by more than 300,000.
“Every year, the situation gets worse and worse and worse,” said Tom Mortensen, a higher-education policy analyst who publishes Postsecondary Education Opportunity newsletter and has beat the drums on the issue since the 1990s.
“It’s a very serious and long-standing problem, and there’s no solution in sight,” said Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and author of “The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men.”
Some, however, say the trend has been overblown and misunderstood. Sara Mead, a senior policy analyst with the Education Sector, a liberal think tank, said the public has wrongly been led to think that boys are doing worse than girls.
“The rate at which men go to college has not fallen; women have just increased their numbers more rapidly,” she said. In a report titled “The Truth About Boys and Girls,” she says, “The idea that women might actually surpass men in some areas … seems hard for many people to swallow. Thus, boys are routinely characterized as ‘falling behind’ even as they improve in absolute terms.”
Catherine Hill, director of research at the American Association of University Women, agreed that gains for women shouldn’t be read as losses for men. “It’s not a zero-sum game,” she said.
Ms. Hill added that “there’s a lot to celebrate” in the trend, saying that not too long ago, it was rare to have women in certain fields, like medicine, while today it’s routine.
But the discussion of possible causes of and solutions for the broader college gap between men and women continues. One possible cause is that since the 1980s, some older women have gone back to college to get degrees, said Ms. King. There is a degree of “pent-up demand,” Ms. Hill agreed.
Mr. Nassirian said some college admissions officers think the problem stems primarily from shortcomings in the K-12 education system, while other officers think the problem lies in colleges’ marketing and messaging — that somehow boys are overlooked or discouraged by the messages they receive from higher education. “My guess is that a little of both would be the case,” Mr. Nassirian said.
Ms. King’s 2006 study found the college gap is still the widest between minority men and minority women — leading some, like Ms. Mead, to argue that if the word “crisis” is to be used, it should be used for the plight of minority boys.
But Mrs. Sommers said problems for all boys begins in younger grades. She said girls, on average, adapt better to school from the early grades, traditional classrooms aren’t set up to accommodate boys’ natural energy, and that, while state and federal efforts have aggressively aimed to improve girls’ performance in science and math, there hasn’t been an equal effort to help boys’ in their weaker subjects of reading and writing.
“All of the emphasis has been on girls. Boys were left on the back burner,” Mrs. Sommers said.
Judith Kleinfeld found the imbalance — which is happening in other Western industrialized countries, too — so troubling that she started the Boys Project, a coalition of scholars, educators and nonprofit groups that tries to help engage and inspire boys at the local, state and national levels. She said girls’ surging college success is important and welcomed, but it’s also clearly time to encourage boys to the same degree.
“Boys don’t like school — this is the root,” she said.
Mrs. Sommers said if the trend continues, the result could be a generation of poorly educated and unemployable boys facing a generation of women who are considerably more educated, a situation causing “all sorts of psychological ramifications.”
Meanwhile, a few colleges are taking specific steps. Among them, St. Petersburg College in Florida has a male recruiting program called “Men on the Way,” loosely based on a pre-existing program for women. Howard University plans to start an initiative to address underrepresentation of black men on campuses, according to a January report by the Black College Wire. And a few small religious schools sponsor a program that encourages boys to go into teaching.