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For many families, a season of applying to college lies ahead; a moment of reckoning about the reality of opportunity in our country. Yet despite recent debates over opportunity gaps, there is still one major (and surprising) gap we ignore.
The millions of young men who are not going to college.
Nationally, 59 percent of college students are female; many campuses, like mine, have a gender imbalance, with the student body over 60 percent women and less than 40 percent men. And the gap only expands when we consider student retention; the six-year graduation rate is six percentage points lower for men than for women.
In contrast to issues of race and class, this disparity challenges our usual notions of opportunity. After all, men continue to earn more than women for the same work and have more access to the top jobs.
So, why is it that men are falling behind in higher education? And why should we care?
For most of history, women had very little educational opportunity, and the college spots available to them were in gender-segregated schools with fewer resources. The Ivy League, for example, didn’t admit women until the late 1960s. It would be decades before the most elite schools reached gender parity.
Why is it that men are falling behind in higher education? And why should we care?
And gender bias still lingers in American education, from pre-K through college.
If women now outperform men in high school and apply to college in greater numbers, isn’t that just a tribute to their grit and determination?
Yes, but there are consequences to the gender gap for all of us. In our increasingly knowledge-based economy, we are less globally competitive whenever we squander talent. The workforce shifts driven by global trade and artificial intelligence have hit men particularly hard. No longer can young men assume the availability of blue-collar jobs with pay sufficient to support their families. (Women rarely had those opportunities in the first place.)
The understandable anxiety and resentment over these seismic shifts have fueled our political divides and disrupted our progress in gender equality.
Related: The pandemic is speeding up the mass disappearance of men from college
Universities themselves have limited tools to fix the gender issue because we come too late in the process. We lack the power to narrow the gap in the applicant pool. Many schools try to balance their numbers somewhat by quietly creating affirmative action for male applicants.
Making it easier for men to get into college than women raises real issues of fairness, however, and may also fuel the differential in graduation rates if more male applicants on the margins are admitted.
We need to increase the pipeline of young men applying to college in the first place, something colleges themselves can’t do. Instead, it is critical that we rethink how we educate boys from the very beginning, before the disparities of academic performance broaden over the course of childhood.
That starts with acknowledgment that our culture enforces gender norms that can hurt boys and girls. Because regardless of actual developmental differences, it is clear that (on average) we send very different signals to girls and boys.
We often encourage in our daughters a focus on schoolwork over other time-consuming — though possibly life-enriching — extracurricular activities. This, some have argued, helps girls perform better in school.
It also may make girls more perfectionist and anxious, and thus less willing to take healthy risks and to be brave, traits which may set them back in the workplace.
With boys, we are more likely to reward confidence (particularly for those who also enjoy other privileges of race and class). That confidence is supremely useful, but it can devolve into swagger unmoored from actual performance.
One research study, for example, showed male students to be far more sure of their abilities in a science class than girls, even when their actual grades did not back them up. Unearned confidence can get in the way of hard work.
And visibly working hard in school does not conform to our cultural definitions of masculinity, which instead define coolness for boys more in terms of athletic prowess.
We also glorify boys who buck rules and expectations, rather than those who visibly try hard in class. We accept a higher level of aggression in boys than girls, and boys are disciplined far more often in school.
We encourage resilience in boys, but possibly by teaching them not to reach out when they need help. And by entertaining them with tales of violence rather than stories of navigating relationships, we hobble their ability to navigate the world.
I read a book of female biographies called “Rebel Girls” to my seven-year-old daughter, encouraging her to be brave and ambitious. But I have come to realize that we also need stories of how amazing it is for boys to study hard at school, how cool it is to work to earn an A.
K-12 educators also need to recognize the significant cost of gender bias and adjust the signals they send, particularly when children are very young. It would help to recruit more male teachers, who now represent less than a quarter of public school teachers.
Some young men don’t apply to college because they face pressure to immediately support their families; others may simply prefer the immediate gratification of a paying job. High school counselors must work harder with such students to make sure they fully understand the economic benefits of investing the time and money to earn a college degree.
And those of us in higher education should spend less time competing for the narrowing pipeline of male students and more time sounding the alarm.
We are losing generations of young men from college, men whose prospects in this increasingly knowledge-based and technological world will dim, men whose talent may be wasted.
Changing a culture will not be easy, but it starts with talking about the problem.
Tania Tetlow, J.D., is the president of Loyola University New Orleans.
This story about the college gender gap was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
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