Divided We Learn

British universities reach out to the new minority: poor white males

Absence of men from campus mirrors a growing imbalance in the U.S.

Dominic Stevens, a University of East London student who is part of a program that uses sports to encourage boys to go to college.

LONDON — Taking shelter from the cold and chilly night inside a cavernous gym in a community center in the East London borough of Newham, two dozen teenagers gossip, stretch, and set up hurdles for a track-and-field training session.

This is one of the few things outside school that young people have to do in this neighborhood, which the government ranks among the country’s poorest. It’s also part of a subtle attempt to address a growing problem the United Kingdom has in common with the United States:

After decades in which men in college far outnumbered women, boys are entering higher education in ranks so low that the balance on campuses has dramatically reversed.

One-third more girls than boys in Britain go to college, government statistics show. Campuses here, overall, are 56 percent female. At 20 universities — and in once-male-dominated majors including medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, biology, and pre-law — women now outnumber men by two to one.

A similar shift is happening in the United States, where men made up 58 percent of college students in 1970, but where the proportions have almost exactly turned around, and enrollment is now comprised of 57 percent women. And it’s vastly complicating efforts in both countries to increase the share of people who have college and university degrees.

In the U.K., however, work has begun to address this, while there are fewer programs in the United States specifically designed to propel males of any race or income into college, or discourage them from dropping out.

“There’s no point in educating only half the population,” said Janet Beer, vice chancellor — the equivalent of president — of the University of Liverpool, which is in the middle of a city that a Church of England charity says includes five of the 10 poorest neighborhoods in England.

The root of this problem, in the U.K., has been traced to poor white boys, like some of the ones in this gym. They’re even less likely than boys from many racial minority groups to go to college. In low-income neighborhoods, as few as one in 10 boys goes on to higher education, compared to half of girls.

By the time they’re 11, researchers observe, these boys feel little motivation to work hard in school, with few examples in their lives of men who went to college, and little hope they can afford what seem to them to be unaffordable fees.

In the U.S., it’s poor black and Hispanic boys who choose not to go to college, at higher rates than even poor white boys, for what experts believe are similar reasons. And a new study warns that, in America, all boys at the bottom of the income ladder are losing hope of ever climbing up it, in what the authors call “economic despair.”

Related: The rich-poor divide on America’s college campuses is getting wider, fast

As the teenagers in the gym keep stretching, and a 12-year-old kicks a tattered soccer ball around the broad-jump pit, one of the coaches arrives. He’s a third-year student at the University of East London, and he’s part of an embryonic effort to prod boys into considering making college part of their futures.

To reach these boys, a simple approach is being pioneered by the university, which is so focused on sports in its curriculum that the U.S. men’s and women’s basketball teams at the 2012 Olympics in London used its state-of-the-art athletic facilities as home base. The idea is to have men in college serve as coaches for these boys, and then as role models and mentors. The program began only this year, and is too new for results to be measured.

Hannah Gale, a student at the University of Liverpool who was running for president of the student union. She thinks that having more women go to college will help create a more even split in business and government.

“We were trying to think, what do young white males engage in?” said Gail May, East London’s head of external and strategic development. “And sport was a way that we could both reach these students and also potentially inspire them.”

That’s now the job of people like this student, Jacob Hood, 21, who takes a small group of runners outside to a lighted track beside the noisy A13 carriageway.

“Sport is one’s sort of second family,” said Hood, keeping an eye on a stopwatch as he timed a laser-focused 16-year-old who was speeding through the damp East London chill in worn-out running shoes, short sleeves, an earring, and a hip-hop-inspired knit cap reading FRESH. And meeting college students like him, Hood said, “definitely opens them up to the possibility” of aiming higher.

“Generally people you’re coaching see you as a role model,” he said. “So if you’re talking about your experience at university, they’ll consider university.”

It’s a modest start to a huge job. Even as more people than ever enter British higher education, the gulf between the proportion of boys going to college here and the proportion of girls continues to widen. A record 35 percent more 18-year-old females than 18-year-old males enrolled this academic year, according to the University and Colleges Admissions Service, or UCAS, which processes most of the nation’s college applications — and, among the lowest-income Britons, 50 percent more.

This means 36,000 fewer 18-year-old men are on campus than would be there if the entry rates were equal — and that, eventually, there will be around that many fewer graduates to take jobs in the knowledge economy, including 12 million jobs the government expects to come open through 2020 due to economic growth, a wave of retirements, and other changes in the workplace.

Related: College enrollment declines for fourth straight year

There are many reasons for this disparity, in both the U.K. and the U.S.

For one thing, females slightly outnumber males in both countries, making up 50.9 percent of the population in the United States and 50.8 percent in the U.K.

For another, girls do better in school. Girls score 16 percent better than boys in A-Levels, the standardized exams generally required to get into British universities, the British Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission reports. It says that gap, too, is widening. And poor white boys do the worst of all.

“Well, I mean, it’s true,” said Hannah Gale, as she was campaigning on the University of Liverpool campus for the presidency of the student union. “When I was in school, girls were at the top of the class.”

Far fewer boys even take these tests or apply to college than girls, suggesting that the problem starts early. Research shows it’s also universal. Girls in primary and secondary school globally read more than boys and spend more time on homework, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. Fifteen-year-old boys worldwide still score slightly better on international tests in math, the OECD found, but girls have caught up to them in science and do better in reading. And boys are 50 percent more likely than girls to fall short in all three areas.

Peer pressure also plays a huge role. At about the time they turn 11, “it becomes uncool to try hard,” said Beer, in Liverpool. “It becomes uncool to be academic.”

College also seems for some boys to be not worth the investment of time and money, according to a new U.S. study that found “economic despair” keeps low-income American boys of all races from even finishing high school, never mind going to college, because they no longer believe the age-old adage that everyone who works hard and follows the rules can rise up the financial scale.

Related: In one country, immigration is seen not as a burden, but as an economic gain

“That’s how America got to where America is, when you talk about all the educational advances over the 20th century that propelled us to having a more advanced economy,” said Phillip Levine, an economist at Wellesley College and coauthor of the study. “But it has to be the case that people making these decisions feel like it’s worth it.”

Boys in both countries may have reasons to raise these questions. Unemployment among Britons aged 16 to 24 who are not in school is nearly 14 percent, among the highest rates since 1992, according to the Office for National Statistics, compared to the national average of 5.1 percent. The left-leaning think tank the Fabian Society projects that, while the wealthiest British households will see their income rise by 25 percent through 2030, the poorest will enjoy almost no gains at all, making them doubt the value of a university degree.

There are similar trends at work in the United States, the Economic Policy Institute reports — including for young college graduates, whose inflation-adjusted earnings are lower than they were in the late 1990s.

But while skepticism may be growing about the return on this investment, statistics show that college does still pay. In the U.K., young men 25 to 34 with college degrees earn 47 percent more than their counterparts without them, the OECD says.

Francesca Ashton at the University of Liverpool, where she studies dentistry, a subject in which women now far outnumber men.

Women who finish college, on the other hand, earn 63 percent more than women who don’t. And while that hasn’t yet evened out the lower pay that women make in the same jobs as men (the shortfall in the U.K. is about 14 percent, according to the British Fawcett Society), it has helped fuel successful efforts to push more of them into it. Plus, decades of work to increase the proportion of women university graduates were so successful, they not only closed the divide with men; they inverted it.

In dentistry, for instance, said Francesca Ashton, who is studying that subject at the University of Liverpool, there are now “a lot more women.”

That’s not a bad thing, said Ashton, in a country that didn’t even allow women to practice dentistry until 1912. Even with the lopsided majority of women dental students, it will take until 2020 for the genders in the profession to be even, according to the National Health Service.

“Hopefully in the next five to 10 years we’ll start seeing a more equal split at the top of businesses, in Parliament,” said Gale. “I think it’s a good thing.”

Related: When colleges slash tuition, some students actually pay more

Only about one in 10 senior executives at major British corporations are women, an executive search form here reported. Women fare only slightly better at U.S. companies, at just under 15 percent, according to the Center for American Progress. And they make up 29 percent of members of Parliament and 19 percent of members of Congress.

It’s true that the shortage of men in college could speed women to their rightful place ruling the world, joked Beer, who is the first woman head of the University of Liverpool and one of only four in the elite 24-member Russell Group — the British equivalent of the Ivy League. “It’s taking too long, though,” she quipped.

She and others said the mismatch threatens serious consequences.

Men are forgoing college educations at a time when both Britain and America are trying to increase the proportions of their populations with degrees. The percentage of men with both bachelor’s and graduate degrees in the United States now has dropped below the percentage of women who have them. The same is true in the United Kingdom, where the gap is biggest among 25- to 34-year-olds.

The math is simple, said Levine: “If boys go to college less often than they otherwise would, you’re lowering not only their economic outcomes but economic outcomes for future generations.”

And that has resulted in the unusual outreach by the University of East London and others to coax more boys in general, and white boys in particular, into college. They’ve shown they can do it with girls, said Beer; now they’re trying to do it with boys.

Without this work, according to UCAS, the gap between men and women at British universities will grow even wider than the significant gulf on campus between rich and poor.

Former Universities Minister David Willetts said white males need to be encouraged to go to college in the same way ethnic and racial minorities are. And, because university fees in the U.K. are subject to government approval, the government has leverage to require that. If a university wants to charge the maximum amount, it has to present a plan to encourage so-called underrepresented groups to enroll.

Seventy-seven universities, or about 45 percent of the total, report that they have programs to support men and young boys in general, the national Office of Fair Access reports; 51 of them, to help working class and white, black, and ethnic minority low-income boys in particular.

Related: Colleges confront the simple math that keeps students from graduating on time

There are fewer university efforts like this, aimed specifically at boys and men, in the United States. One, a White House initiative called My Brother’s Keeper, is designed to lower crime and high school dropout rates and improve college-going and employment prospects for black and Hispanic males.

Like boys everywhere, some here imagine forgoing school to become professional athletes, said David Cosford, the University of East London’s director of sport. In his office above the university’s athletic facilities, he related the story of one who did manage—briefly—to play for a professional soccer club.

Now, said Cosford, that man works for an undertaker.

“His dreams were smashed,” he said.

But others who have gone this route have enrolled at the university to become qualified as coaches. And some are among those working now with low-income boys nearby.

“Youth disengaging, not feeling a connection, is sometimes a problem,” Cosford said. “Sport gives you a sense of belonging, of inclusion. You work together, you lose together, you’re on a journey together.”

And coaches who have been on that same journey already?

“There are no better people to raise the aspirations of young people,” he said.

Back in Newham, another University of East London student, Dominic Stevens, works with young people at an after-school sports academy that uses basketball to help prevent youth crime.

Like many of his young players, Stevens said, he was raised in a council estate, or public housing project.

“It’s just not the norm” for people from such circumstances to go on to college, said Stevens, who is 20. “They just don’t put enough belief in themselves.”

As a result, he said, “I’ll tell you what we lose. You don’t know what they’ve got in their minds. You don’t know if any of these guys have a cure for cancer. It’s things like university that bring that out.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

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Jon Marcus

Jon Marcus, higher-education editor, has written about higher education for the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, the Boston Globe, Washington Monthly, is North America higher-education… See Archive