What's behind the unexpected gender gap on college campuses?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

In most conversations about the gender gap — whether the topic is income, professional achievement or presence in leadership roles — it’s typically women who are struggling to keep up with men. When it comes to higher education, however, the disparity is reversed.

At the end of the 2020-21 academic year, nearly 60 percent of all college students were women, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse. Women have outpaced men in college enrollment for decades, but last year’s gap represents an all-time high. If the trend continues, twice as many women as men will earn college degrees within the next few years, the NSC’s executive director told the Wall Street Journal.

As much as this disparity is a sign of success for women, many experts worry about the wider effects of a worsening education deficit among men. Men with bachelor’s degrees earn about $900,000 on average more than high school graduates over the course of their careers. Less-educated men are also more likely to be unemployed and are more vulnerable to economic shocks like the recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic. At a society-wide scale, these shortfalls could dampen growth of the U.S. economy and make inequality more severe.

Universities across the country have quietly tried to reverse this trend, knowing that prospective applicants find schools with a significant gender divide in either direction less appealing. One college enrollment consultant told the Journal there is a “thumb on the scale for boys” in admissions at many prestigious schools, a reality she called “higher education’s dirty little secret.”

Why there’s debate

About 50 years ago, when women were underrepresented in colleges, sexism provided a simple answer as to why. But experts say the forces keeping men out of higher education today are complex and won’t be easy to reverse.

The role of college in American life has changed substantially in recent decades, in a way that has made higher education feel less essential to many men, some say. This is true in a practical sense. Women-dominated fields like teaching, nursing and counseling require at least a bachelor’s degree, while predominantly male professions like construction typically don’t. Conservative pundits often argue that what they see as anti-male liberal political culture in academia has made men feel they don’t belong on campus.

Many education experts say the causes of the college gender gap are established much earlier. Boys are much more likely to struggle academically in early school years and are more likely to be punished for misbehavior. They’re also more reticent to seek help, which can throw their education off track at an early age. Research also suggests that boys experience the negative economic impacts of poverty and of growing up in a single parent household more acutely than girls, effects that can make them more likely to pursue low-wage jobs available right away rather than investing in a college education.

What’s next

The college gender gap shows no sign of reversing, as states like Iowa and Minnesota are noting the dips. Women submitted nearly a million more college applications for the 2021-22 school year than men did, according to data obtained by the Journal.


Women have fewer career options if they don’t get a college degree

“Women surged into college because they were able to, but also because many had to. There are still some good-paying jobs available to men without college credentials. There are relatively few for such women. And despite the considerable cost in time and money of earning a degree, many female-dominated jobs don’t pay well.” — Kevin Carey, New York Times

Well-established systems that have helped women succeed don’t exist for men

“Female students in the U.S. benefit from a support system established decades ago, spanning a period when women struggled to gain a foothold on college campuses. … Young men get little help, in part, because schools are focused on encouraging historically underrepresented students.” — Douglas Belkin, Wall Street Journal

Many young men feel there is no place for them on college campuses

“A generation of white men who grew up hearing that the problem with American institutions is that there are too many white men in them apparently has been listening.” — Kevin D. Williamson, New York Post

Pressure to make money in the short term can steer men away from college

“Sometimes there’s the sense that young men will come back to the system when they enter into their career and realize that they do need a college degree for advancement, and a lot of the data shows that just doesn’t happen. Once students start this path and don’t pursue college, it’s really hard to get back into the system. Really hard, because life happens.” — Jens Larson, Eastern Washington University vice president, to The Spokesman-Review

Many boys are thrown off from college early in their education

“The differences between boys and girls emerge as early as elementary school, where boys lag in literacy skills and are overrepresented in special education. Boys are also more likely than girls to be punished for misbehaving — an experience that can sour them on school. … Boys are also less likely than girls to seek or accept help for their academic and emotional struggles, having been socialized to be self-reliant. By the time they’re in middle school, some boys have disengaged from school entirely.” — Kelly Field, Chronicle of Higher Education

Young men of color may feel like they have no place in society

“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?” — Luis Ponjuan, higher education researcher, to Hechinger Report

Schools don’t have room to make male enrollment a priority

“With men still dominating the worlds of business, politics — and the faculty rosters of higher ed institutions themselves — it’s hard to generate the same attention to, or sympathy for, the growing gender gap in educational attainment.” — Michael Jonas, Commonwealth Magazine

Boys are especially hurt by the decline of marriage in the U.S.

“Marriage matters. Children from single-parent households, particularly boys from single-parent households, fare far worse than children from married households. Until our public policy elites admit our nation has a marriage crisis, the ‘guy problem’ at colleges will only get worse.” — Conn Carroll, Washington Examiner

The college gender gap is a societal problem that requires society-wide solutions

“This gender gap is an economic story, a cultural story, a criminal-justice story, and a family-structure story that begins to unfold in elementary school. … Rather than dial up male attendance one college-admissions department at a time, policy makers should think about the social forces that make the statistic inevitable.” — Derek Thompson, The Atlantic

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images