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PITTSBURGH — Jessica Smith raised an arm and pointed across the lobby of the university student center like an ornithologist who had just spied a rare breed in the underbrush.
“There’s one,” she said.
It was, in fact, an unusual bird that Smith had spotted, especially on this campus: masculum collegium discipulus. A male college student.
Women outnumber men by more than six to one here at Carlow University, where Smith is a senior and an orientation leader who was preparing to welcome incoming freshmen.
That’s an extreme example of a surprising shift besetting all of higher education.
Where men once went to college in proportions far higher than women — 58 percent to 42 percent as recently as the 1970s — the ratio has now almost exactly reversed.
This fall, women will comprise more than 56 percent of students on campuses nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Some 2.2 million fewer men than women will be enrolled in college this year. And the trend shows no sign of abating. By 2026, the department estimates, 57 percent of college students will be women.
The new minority on campus? Men.
That’s an irony not lost on Jennifer Carlo, vice president of student engagement and student affairs at Carlow University, which is trying all kinds of ideas to bolster its supply of men — including showcasing male college success stories as examples to prospective applicants.
“It didn’t used to be that you were worried about providing role models and mentors for males,” Carlo mused.
Started as an all-women’s college by an order of nuns, Carlow has had a longer road to travel than most other institutions to balance its enrollment by gender; although it has admitted men to its degree programs for nearly 50 years, it has recruited them aggressively only since 2004.
The university is adding sports teams to attract more, including men’s track and field this fall, and men are disproportionately represented in the promotional photos on its website and marketing materials. There are also new degree programs in fields such as business meant in part to appeal to men.
Related: Universities and colleges struggle to stem big drops in enrollment
Carlow has a lot of competition. Reeling from a years-long decline in overall enrollment, colleges and universities nationwide are vying for all the students they can get, and suddenly paying new attention to bolstering the number of men who apply.
“Oh, my heavens, yes,” said Carlo. The flow of prospective students has been dropping off for so long, she said, “you’ve got to have everybody.”
So while much attention has been focused on the controversy over gender-neutral bathrooms on campuses, she said, the much bigger gender issue behind the scenes at universities and colleges is how to draw more men.
Though advocates complain that few in higher education are doing enough to keep those men who do get there from leaving, there’s consensus that mens’ reluctance to enroll in the first place isn’t necessarily the colleges’ fault. The problem has its origins as early as primary school, only to be fueled later on by economic forces that discourage men from believing a degree is worth the time and money.
“It’s funny that it’s the colleges that are finally seeing this issue and trying to resolve it,” said Patrick Maloney, president of the Nativity School, a Jesuit Catholic middle school in the central Massachusetts city of Worcester that tries to aim low-income boys toward college. That’s because, by the time students reach college age, Maloney said, “It’s way too late. You’ve already lost them. Maybe [admissions officers] should be going into middle schools and start talking to fifth-graders about the benefits of college education.”
Or even earlier than that. The “anti-school, anti-education sentiment” in boys has roots in kindergarten, when they’re slower to learn to read than girls, said Jim Shelley, manager of the Men’s Resource Center at Lakeland Community College in Ohio. Girls at the primary and secondary level worldwide far outperform boys in reading, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.
That disparity continues until, “by eighth or ninth grade, boys have lost interest,” Shelley said.
Many boys beyond that point perceive little benefit to college, especially considering its cost. To them it means a lot of sacrifice for a vague payoff far in the future, said Jerlando Jackson, director and chief research scientist at Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Low-income boys in places with the most economic inequality, in particular, suffer what one study called the “economic despair” of seeing little hope for financial advancement.
Related: Is the college degree outdated?
“They think, ‘Well, I could just start out working in the mall and in six years make the same as a classmate who goes to college and whose first post-college job pays them less than I’ll be making then,’ ” Jackson said.
Meanwhile, boys in many American communities don’t see male role models who have been to college and succeeded, said Keith Bullock at Kentucky’s Berea College (56 percent female). Bullock is coordinator of programs to support male students, many of them from Appalachia. “They don’t have those examples of doctors and lawyers and professionals.”
Men may also feel they have more alternatives to college than girls do. “For a lot of my [male] high school friends, it was just too much time,” said Smith, the orientation leader at Carlow. “They were ready to get out. As opposed to a four-year college, they could go to an 18-month [vocational-education] program and make just as much money.”
Some 2.2 million fewer men than women will be enrolled in college this year. By 2026, nearly 57 percent of college students will be women.
That was the choice of at least one high school classmate of Vinny Bucci, the male Carlow student Smith pointed out across the student center.
“I had a friend who, instead of going to college, went into trade work, and he said he’d have a job before I did,” said Bucci, who just earned a biology degree and is headed on to graduate school to become a mental health counselor. “And he does. But when he’s 45, he’ll be miserable.”
He’s also likely to be poorer. People with bachelor’s degrees earn 56 percent more, on average, than people with only high school educations, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Shelley works with men over 25 who took the route that Bucci’s classmate did, but then got tired of their lives in manual labor and returned to community college. Asked why they were giving school a try again, they tell him, “ ‘All I do is play video games and hang out with friends. I need to do something with my life.’ I’ve had a number of young men refer to themselves as losers because they hadn’t gotten traction in any career.”
Related: British universities reach out to the new minority: poor white males
Other of these male returnees are breadwinners. “Men need to know perhaps more than women what the payoff is going to be,” said Shelley: “ ‘If I commit to this, what am I going to take away from it? Is there going to be a job two years from now when I walk across the commencement stage?’”
Men who do enroll in college, at whatever age, are more likely than women to drop out, and they graduate at lower rates, the Education Department reports. That’s one thing universities and colleges can address directly, but generally don’t, Shelley said.
Through 21 years running one of the few campus support centers exclusively for men, he said, “I’ve thought it can only get better. But it just has gone nowhere. Not only are there not programs like ours that are supportive of male students, but at most college campuses the attitude is that men are the problem versus men have problems too. I’ve had male students tell me that their first week in college they were made to feel like potential rapists.”
Added Maloney: “There’s a lot of attention on empowering girls. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but males are the ones in crisis in education.”
Jackson thinks there’s a surprising racial component. There’s not much work being done to encourage boys to go to college, he said, because not all of those boys are from racial and ethnic minorities society regards as disadvantaged. A lot of them are white.
“It’s a tough discussion to have and a hard pill to swallow when you have to start the conversation with, ‘White males are not doing as well as one might historically think,’ ” he said. “We’re uncomfortable as a nation having a discussion that includes white males as a part of a group that is having limited success.”
The male students under his care are black, white and Hispanic, Bullock said, and they all face similar pressures. He escorts them to the counseling and advising offices and texts them every day to make sure they get to class on time and know when tests are scheduled. “My guys,” he calls them. He also works with them on study habits and time management. “It’s very challenging. It’s very emotional. Sometimes I’m hugging them up and there’s times when I feel I have to curse them out.”
As for how to recruit males to campuses in the first place, Stefanie Niles, vice president for enrollment at Dickinson College (57 percent female) said it’s important that they see other men on campus.
“We think about, ‘What will appeal to young men?’ ” she said. “Young men want to see other young men like themselves, so we want to make sure we showcase that.”
Related: As graduates obsess about jobs, colleges cut spending on career services
The college also waits to reach out to some males until they are already seniors in high school, since it’s found that boys get serious about college much later than the girls and other boys it recruits as early as November of their sophomore years.
Alex Santiago was one of those boys who decided late to go to college. At the Nativity School in Worcester, he said, “me and my friends competed to see who would get better grades.” But when he left for high school, “I started to sort of rebel, and by eighth-grade year I don’t think I spent one day out of detention. I didn’t see the point in going to school.”
The son of a single mother who immigrated from the Dominican Republic, Santiago said he had neighbors and cousins who had gone to college but wound up working jobs for which they didn’t need higher educations. “That was what I was exposed to. That’s what shaped a lot of my negative thoughts toward colleges.”
Even popular culture tended to discourage him. “It jumps back to influence,” said Santiago. “What are you feeding your mind and who are you looking up to? If you’re looking up to these rappers or social media influencers, you’re going to want to do what they’re doing,” and that doesn’t necessarily include going to college.
Then something happened, said Santiago, who at 22 is now a senior at Clark University majoring in economics and paying part of his tuition by driving a delivery truck for an auto parts wholesaler. “I wish I could tell you what it was. But something clicked in me that was that I have to get things together now if I want to become something in the future.”
One of his male friends from childhood is in jail. Others have kids of their own.
“They fit right into the cycle of what I was used to seeing,” he said. But Santiago bucked that trend. “I’m not somebody who’s okay with coasting through life,” he said.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our higher education newsletter.
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Male college enrollment indeed has many facets. Here are two additional topics worth mentioning. If male enrollment started to decline in the 1970’s, has the impact of ending the draft and student deferments been examined? Also, in the preceding generation, the impact of the GI bill on male college enrollment deserves consideration.
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