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Listen: Disappearance Of Men From College Campuses by Kirk Carapezza

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Debrin Adon, a senior at the University Park Campus School in Worcester, Massachusetts. His male classmates “don’t think they’re smart enough” for college, Adon says. “They doubt themselves a little bit because of their life and what they’ve been through and what they’ve been seen as.” Credit: Kate Flock for The Hechinger Report

WORCESTER, Mass. — When he and his male classmates talk about going to college, said Debrin Adon, it always comes down to one thing.

“We’re more focused on money,” said Adon, 17, a senior at a public high school here. “Like, getting that paycheck, you know?” Whereas, “if I go to college, I’ve got to pay this much and take on all this debt.”

That’s among the many reasons the number of men who go to college has for years been badly trailing the number of women who go. And the Covid-19 pandemic has abruptly thrown the ratio even more off balance.

While enrollment in higher education overall fell 2.5 percent in the fall, or by more than 461,000 students compared to the fall of 2019, the decline among men was more than seven times as steep as the decline among women, according to an analysis of figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“In a sense, we have lost a generation of men to Covid-19.”

Adrian Huerta, assistant professor of education, University of Southern California

“In a sense, we have lost a generation of men to Covid-19,” said Adrian Huerta, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California who studies college-going among boys and men.

“It’s a national crisis,” said Luis Ponjuan, an associate professor of higher education administration at Texas A&M University.

Adon, who attends the University Park Campus School, plans to buck the odds and go to college. He said he decided this after he realized that his parents, who immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic, want a better life for him. His mother is unemployed now, and his father runs a barbershop.

Related: Number of rural students planning on going to college plummets

Lynnel Reed, head guidance counselor at the University Park Campus School in Worcester, Massachusetts, says many of her male students are getting jobs that may divert them from college. “How do you go away to college and leave your family struggling?” Credit: Kate Flock for The Hechinger Report

“It wasn’t dramatic,” he said of the moment he made up his mind to pursue a degree in computer science; he described it while standing outside on the asphalt that surrounds the 135-year-old redbrick school, which switched to entirely virtual instruction because of the pandemic. “You know when you’re in the shower and you just think about life?” 

That kind of epiphany has eluded many other young men.

Women now comprise nearly 60 percent of enrollment in universities and colleges and men just over 40 percent, the research center reports. Fifty years ago, the gender proportions were reversed.

“We were already not doing so hot,” Ponjuan said. “This pandemic exacerbates what’s happening.”

“How do you go away to college and leave your family struggling when you know that if you just worked right now, you could help them right now with those everyday needs?”

Lynnel Reed, head guidance counselor, University Park Campus School

It’s also opened jobs for young men from Worcester high schools at grocery stores and at Amazon, FedEx and other delivery companies, said Lynnel Reed, head guidance counselor at University Park, nearly two-thirds of whose students are considered economically disadvantaged. The school is in a neighborhood of fast-food restaurants, liquor stores, used-car lots, dollar stores and triple-deckers — homes usually shared by three families, one on each level, that are a staple of urban New England.

“How do you go away to college and leave your family struggling when you know that if you just worked right now, you could help them right now with those everyday needs?” Reed said.

That’s a bigger pull for young men than for young women, said Derrick Brooms, a sociologist at the University of Cincinnati.

The University Park Campus School in Worcester, Massachusetts. The 135-year-old school serves about 240 students, two-thirds of them low-income. Credit: Kate Flock for The Hechinger Report

“It aligns with this perception that to be a man is to be self-sufficient,” Brooms said. “It’s a little bit different for girls. We’re teaching them about investing for even greater payoffs down the line.”

This has only been exacerbated by Covid-19.

“It makes more sense right now just to say, ‘I’m going to take a break because my family needs this money,’ ” said Huerta. And even if young men resolve to go to college later, he said, history shows that “their chances of actually coming back to higher ed are probably slim to none.”

While the number of students overall fell by more than 461,000 compared to the fall of 2019, the decline among men was more than seven times as steep as the decline among women.

Despite the allure of a paycheck versus going into debt and spending years pursuing a degree, the reality is that “a lot of these young men at 17 or 18 years old end up working 12-hour shifts, getting married, buy a truck, get a mortgage, and by the time they’re 30, their bodies are broken,” Ponjuan said. “And now they have a mortgage, three kids to feed and that truck, and no idea what to do next.”

Stopping education after high school not only limits men’s options; it threatens to further widen socioeconomic and political divides, Brooms said.

Related: In one country, women now outnumber men in college by two to one

Worcester State University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Men have trailed women in college-going for so long that the public university’s enrollment is now over 60 percent women. Credit: Kate Flock for The Hechinger Report

Not everyone has to go to college. Faster and less costly career and technical education can lead to in-demand, well-paying jobs in skilled trades, automation and other fields.

Graduates with bachelor’s degrees still generally make more than people with lesser credentials, however. And the pandemic has shown that people without degrees are more vulnerable to economic downturns. Unemployment for them, nationwide, rose more than twice as fast in the spring as unemployment for people with bachelor’s degrees, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found.   

“We have a lot of young men who are completely disengaged from our society because quite frankly they don’t feel they’re being valued as men.”

Luis Ponjuan, associate professor of higher education administration, Texas A&M University

Meanwhile, the shootings of Black civilians by police and the resulting outrage has left some young Black and Hispanic men who are still in high school “disenfranchised almost to the point where they’re feeling like they’re invisible, that the community doesn’t value who they are, at the very time that they’re developing their own identities,” Ponjuan said.  

That too, has an immediate impact on their motivation to get further educations, he and others said.

Pedro Hidalgo, a senior at the University Park Campus School in Worcester, Massachusetts. He says teachers in middle school helped him “become more confident with my abilities, not even as just a student, but as a person.” Credit: Kate Flock for The Hechinger Report

“We have a lot of young men who are completely disengaged from our society because quite frankly they don’t feel they’re being valued as men. So they think, why even try when everybody sees me as a thug, as a delinquent, when everyone assumes the worst of me instead of assuming the best of me?”

Pedro Hidalgo, another senior at University Park, said he “never had that belief within myself” that he could go to college. Then “teachers in middle school actually helped me realize that I’m more than what I seem to think that I am at times. They just helped me progressively become more confident with my abilities, not even as just a student, but as a person.”

Now Hidalgo, 18, whose older brother started but never finished college, plans to pursue a degree in psychology and become a clinical therapist.

Related: Progress in getting underrepresented people into college and skilled jobs may be stalling because of the pandemic

Kellie Becker, head guidance counselor at North High School in Worcester, Massachusetts, says taking college courses while still in high school emboldens male students. “They’re like, ‘All right, you know what? Wait, I can do this.’ “ Credit: Kate Flock for The Hechinger Report

He said he made that decision after taking dual-enrollment courses offered by his high school in collaboration with neighboring Clark University.

When they take those college-level classes, “They’re like, ‘All right, you know what? Wait, I can do this,’ ” said Kellie Becker, head guidance counselor at nearby North High School. “It eases their transition to college and builds their confidence.”

It was the dual-enrollment program that clicked with Abdulkadir Abdullahi, 18, a student at North.

“I didn’t think I was going to college. I didn’t think it could be useful to me in the real world,” said Abdullahi, son of a single father who’s a postal carrier. “I would rather hang out with my friends and, like, slack.”

Then an older sister went to college and Abdullahi took a dual-enrollment course.

“I was, like, ‘Oh, I could really do this,’ ” he said. Until then, “I always thought college was going to be, like, writing 20-page essays every other week, staying up overnight.”

Now he plans to get a degree in sociology.

Some of their male classmates still have qualms, said Adon, Abdullahi and Hidalgo.

Abdulkadir Abdullahi, a senior at North High School in Worcester, Massachusetts. “I didn’t think I was going to college. I didn’t think it could be useful to me in the real world,” says Abdullahi, who changed his mind after taking college courses while still in high school. Credit: Kate Flock for The Hechinger Report

“They don’t think they’re smart enough,” Adon said. “They don’t think they can do it. They doubt themselves a little bit because of their life and what they’ve been through and what they’ve been seen as.”

In those dual-enrollment classes, Hidalgo, said, there are more girls than boys. “It’s intimidating because, you know, you don’t want to say the wrong thing.”

Young men seem to have shorter attention spans, Abdullahi said. “There’s more distractions for guys. The guy is always the class clown. I think they just lose their motivation.”

There’s research to back that up. Boys are more likely than girls as early as elementary school to be held back, a Brown University researcher found. They are almost 9 percentage points less likely to graduate from high school, according to the U.S. Department of Education. 

Related: More people with bachelor’s degrees go back to school to learn skilled trades

Ryan Forsyth, vice president for enrollment management at Worcester State University in Worcester, Massachusetts, where male enrollment has dropped below 40 percent. Credit: Kate Flock for The Hechinger Report

“Boys realize that teachers and counselors aren’t invested in them in the same way that they’re invested in girls,” said Huerta. “Teachers and counselors are more concerned with ensuring the boys are doing the basics — behaving in class — versus ensuring that they’re college-ready.”

So long has this been going on that enrollment at Worcester State University, across town from the University Park Campus School, is now more than 60 percent women.

Women now comprise nearly 60 percent of enrollment at universities and colleges, and men around 40 percent. Fifty years ago, the proportions were reversed.

In addition to all the other issues caused by the mass disappearance of men from college, it’s a big problem for universities and colleges struggling to fill seats, said Ryan Forsyth, Worcester State’s vice president for enrollment management.

He, too, sees the pandemic as encouraging more young male high school seniors to jump straight into the workforce, “rather than seeing the value of going into a college for a two- or four-year degree to really invest in themselves,” Forsyth said on the cold and nearly empty campus.

That seems unlikely to change soon, Ponjuan said.

“This pandemic only highlights the unspoken truth that it is creating short-term solutions for these young men but not long-term opportunities,” he said. “Long term, they’re going to top out. They’re not going to be able to advance. It has created a false sense of security that they’ll get by just delivering packages.”

This story about men in college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization, in collaboration with GBH Boston. Additional reporting by Kirk Carapezza. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Jon Marcus writes and edits stories about, and helps plan coverage of, higher education. A former magazine editor, he has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Wired, Medium.com...

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  1. As the father of two boys, 16 and 17, in public school, they have been pushed aside by a drum beat of girl positive and girl friendly programs for more than a decade. It has been the same as 1950s schools telling girls that their place is in the kitchen caring for children.
    Net result is a host of problems my boys face now and later which are imposed via the schools.
    My younger son once said that the boys refused to compete against the girls at school because the teacher gave the girls a head start to make it fair. He said ‘Why play a game where the rules are always changed to favor one team’

  2. I don’t think this matters.

    Before the pandemic, Moody’s was predicting that one third of all American universities and colleges will soon be bankrupt. Just today, the Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting massive enrollment drops drops due to the pandemic.

    In a nutshell: the only way the colleges will survive is to recruit men.

    Naturally, being feminist, many will recruit men in tandem with warning them about toxic masculinity (or some other feminist garbage). However, that will fail, and enrollment will drop and schools will lose.

    In the 1970s they actively pursued female students due to a social conscience and law.

    Now it will come down to money, money, money, money — and that will eventually favor men.

    Men hold all the aces. If they do not go to college, they go into training programs, come out with jobs and no debt. If they do go, they go to campuses with very few men (and men will be desired).

    Sure, as Brad T states, the anti-male sexism his sons face is repugnant, but give it time.

  3. I wonder how often the family they can’t “leave struggling” includes a sister, and “struggling” just means she wouldn’t be able to “focus on her education”.

  4. There is a professor at my school who studies how college men perceive social support and its relationship to their academic self-concept. He talks in class sometimes about a lot if what you mentioned in this article, but ultimately explains the achievement gap through this idea that (tangible support aside) the perception of social support alone is strongly correlated with how young men view themselves within an academic context. And this could help us explain the gap between ability and actual achievement. From his conversations with some of our male classmates, many of them do not see the academic environment as particularly supportive and some even see it as hostile, as their struggles and the scholarship that would examine their struggles is far too often examined through an academic feminist lens. Ots no wonder my classmates are checking out, even while we are doing better on most metrics for academic success, all if the programs on our campus are still focused on us (women).

    Troubling. ..

    My professor is https://www.researchgate.net/profile/James-Morris-Iii

  5. I constantly read people saying those who don’t go to college are lazy, losers, emotionally stunted. Honestly though you know what? The trade school I attended to get an AAS was mainly lost people and veterans. The community college I attended and got my AS from was AMAZING.

    The university I’m getting a BS in CS from? The majority of people, men and women, are basically on paid vacation. The only people I see putting in effort are STEM and med/law majors including nursing etc., and I HATE to say that because it is an awful stereotype. I’m going to be quite blunt here but let’s be realistic about college, the men are undeveloped pigs with zero social skills, and the women are hyper-socialites addicted to social media who want fake independence from mom and dad via exorbitant dorming/apartment rents to play house with their video-game addict or jock boyfriends. Let’s just be real about this here, the majority of students at an average state university are not great. However, I have met exceptionally talented people of both sexes from all backgrounds. Also, supposedly my dumb male brain which can only turn wrenches has been performing great in high-level math and CS classes.

    Men have alternatives beyond 4-year college, women basically do not. And blaming public schools for boys’ academic performance is stupid. I bombed highschool and have almost aced calc 1-3, stats, discrete, physics, sure nothing insanely hard but this was not the education systems’ fault, it was my own.

    I’m still happier with hands-on work than programming even though I’m good at both, but that means I’m the dumb man who can’t do equations or write essays I guess.

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