This fall, I heard a question I had never before encountered in my job helping women from low-income backgrounds complete a college degree: “Is this work still needed?”
The question came up in response to alarming reports about men’s plummeting college enrollment rates during the pandemic, including a viral Wall Street Journal article with a stark statistic: 19 percent more women than men were enrolled in college at the end of the academic year 2020-21.
In late October, the National Student Clearinghouse reported that men’s college enrollment has continued to decline this academic year; it has now dropped a total of 9.3 percent since fall 2019, compared to a 5.3 percent drop for women.
To be sure, concern about the declining male enrollment rate is warranted. The pandemic fallout is exacerbating a gender disparity in college attendance that has existed since the 1980s. But it would be a grave mistake to construe the widening college gender gap as proof that women essentially glide to graduation once they start a postsecondary program.
For women from Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and low-income communities, an associate or bachelor’s degree is far from a sure thing.
As attention now shifts to understanding men’s declining enrollment, policymakers, legislators and higher education administrators must address three specific challenges that discourage women from applying to college, compel them to leave once they’ve started or prevent them from reaping the full benefits of their degrees.
First, the inability to pay for food, housing and other basic needs is among the greatest barriers to college completion for low-income women as the pandemic lingers. Research in the years prior to the pandemic demonstrated that the high cost of life’s basic necessities — food, shelter, health care, transportation — can derail a promising college career as swiftly as unpaid tuition bills.
While basic needs insecurities threaten students regardless of gender, a 2019-20 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study of the pandemic’s impact on undergraduates found that females had greater difficulty than males accessing food or paying for food and finding stable and safe child care.
Female students also reported more financial disruption than their male peers (although the greatest proportion of financial disruption was reported by students who identified as gender nonconforming, genderqueer or a different identity).
A recent study of City University of New York (CUNY) students found that female students experienced anxiety and depression and expressed a need for mental health supports during the pandemic at higher rates than men; as with other basic needs, the struggle to find affordable health care, including counseling services, can hinder academic progress.
Policymakers, legislators and higher education administrators must address three specific challenges that discourage women from applying to college, compel them to leave once they’ve started or prevent them from reaping the full benefits of their degrees.
Any school seeking to recruit and retain women from low-income backgrounds must have a strategy, such as a vigorous emergency aid program and support for students applying for government benefits (for example, SNAP), to ease the burden of nonacademic expenses.
Second, the pandemic has exacerbated the extraordinary challenges faced by student parents, 70 percent of whom are women.Of the 3.8 million college students who were parents of children under the age of 18 in 2016 (the most recent year for which national data is available), 2.7 million were mothers, including 1.7 million single mothers, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports.
This is a financially precarious group under the best of circumstances; parenting students have among the highest rates of basic needs insecurity and often need more time to complete their degrees while contending with the additional costs of child care.
While it is not yet known how many mothers stopped out of their degree programs during the pandemic or postponed their plans to pursue a degree, even a small number of thwarted college careers will have a negative ripple effect on entire families.
Reversing a pandemic trend of campus child care closures and providing more affordable and high-quality child care options will be essential to retaining student-parents, as will building campus cultures more inclusive of students with children.
Third, pay inequity and student loan debt hinder women’s economic mobility. Women with a bachelor’s degree earn 74 cents for every dollar earned by a man with the same credential. Pay inequity is even greater for Black and Hispanic women.
One factor contributing to this pay gap is the underrepresentation of women in majors that lead to jobs with higher salaries, such as engineering and computer science.
Moreover, women hold two-thirds of student loan debt, with Black women holding the highest average total, the AAUW reports.
Add to the mix the challenges that first-generation college students (who become first-generation professionals) face in negotiating salaries and finding jobs that reflect their education, and the true promise of college credentials falls out of reach.
If economic mobility is among the highest goals of a college degree, then we must consider women’s degree completion rates in the context of their postsecondary outcomes.
That so many women have persisted in college despite these challenges is a testament to their conviction that a degree is the best means of improving their lives and their families’ lives. But this belief can’t be taken for granted, especially at the tail end of a pandemic that has hit women in caregiving roles especially hard.
Strategies to reverse the decline in male college enrollment must be developed in parallel with, and not at the expense of, policies that pay specific attention to female students. To neglect to do so will hamper the overall goals of giving more people access to higher-paying jobs and training a workforce to meet the nation’s needs.
Rona Sheramy, Ph.D., is executive director of the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women (JFEW), a nonsectarian philanthropy dedicated to college completion for women from low-income backgrounds.
This story about women and college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.