The Magazine

Where The Boys Aren't

The gender gap on college campuses

Jan 2, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 16 • By MELANA ZYLA VICKERS
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Here's a thought that's unlikely to occur to twelfth--grade girls as their college acceptances begin to trickle in: After they get to campus in the fall, one in four of them will be mathematically unable to find a male peer to go out with.

At colleges across the country, 58 women will enroll as freshmen for every 42 men. And as the class of 2010 proceeds toward graduation, the male numbers will dwindle. Because more men than women drop out, the ratio after four years will be 60--40, according to projections by the Department of Education.

The problem isn't new-women bachelor's degree--earners first outstripped men in 1982. But the gap, which remained modest for some time, is widening. More and more girls are graduating from high school and following through on their college ambitions, while boys are failing to keep pace and, by some measures, losing ground.

Underperformance in education is no longer a problem confined to black males, Hispanic males, or even poor whites. In 2004, the nation's middle--income, white undergraduate population was 57 percent female. Even among white undergraduates with family incomes of $70,000 and higher, the balance tipped in 2000 to 52 percent female. And white boys are the only demographic group whose high school dropout rate has risen since 2000. Maine, a predominantly white state, is at 60--40 in college enrollment and is quickly reaching beyond it. There are now more female master's degree--earners than male, and in 10 years there will be more new female Ph.D.s, according to government projections. American colleges from Brown to Berkeley face a man shortage, and there's no end in sight.

Yet few alarm bells are ringing. In the early 1970s, when the college demographics were roughly reversed at 43 percent female and 57 percent male, federal education laws were reformed with the enactment in 1972 of Title IX, a provision that requires numerical parity for women in various areas of federally funded schooling. Feminist groups pushed the Equal Rights Amendment through the House and Senate. Universities opened women's studies departments. And the United Nations declared 1975 the International Year of the Woman. The problem was structural, feminists never tired of repeating: A system built by men, for men, was blocking women's way.

Today's shortage of men, by contrast, is largely ignored, denied, or covered up. Talk to university administrators, and few will admit that the imbalance is a problem, let alone that they're addressing it. Consider the view of Stephen Farmer, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill, where this year's enrollment is only 41.6 percent male. "We really have made no attempt to balance the class. We are gender blind in applications, very scrupulously so."

Why the blind devotion to gender--blindness? Because affirmative action for men is politically incorrect. And at universities receiving federal funding like UNC, it's also illegal. "My understanding of Title IX is that an admissions process that advantages men would be very difficult to defend," Farmer says.

The recent history at the University of Georgia, with its male enrollment of 42 percent, explains the situation further. In 2001, a federal appeals court struck down the university's use of gender and race criteria to try to boost its black, male numbers in undergraduate admissions. Three white women sued the school after being rejected, arguing they'd have gotten into the University of Georgia if they had been black men. The appeals court agreed with a lower court's finding that the admissions process in place at the time violated Title VI (race equity) and Title IX (gender equity) by "intentionally discriminating against them based on race and gender."

It didn't even take a court ruling to cause Brandeis University, which is 46 percent male, to abandon its lame effort to attract more men. A few years ago it offered free baseball caps to the first 500 male undergraduate applicants. Brandeis's new dean of admissions, Gil Villanueva, says "things were looking pretty low on the male end and so people said let's give it a shot and see what happens." Evidently not much-the promotion was never repeated. Says Villanueva, "We have no special recruitment plan for males. We are very much gender blind." He says the administrators won't worry about the gender balance unless "all of a sudden our applicant pool is 75 percent female."

Boston University, 40.8 percent male at the undergraduate level, shows even less official concern. The imbalance is a national trend that begins with fewer men graduating from high school and applying to college, says spokesman Colin Riley. "We can't do something about the pool if they're not applying."

BU's position wasn't always so passive. In the mid--'90s, then--president John Silber sought to take a few small steps to address the shortfall of males. He told staff that BU's publicity materials ought to be gender--neutral, and that an ROTC publicity photo showing a woman ought to show a man, because ROTC at the university was predominantly male. Asked this month about Silber's minor intervention, university spokesman Riley tried to downplay it, saying "most places would be impressed" to have a woman in the ROTC photo. He added that the gender ratio is not "discerned as a problem. We certainly don't view it as such." Interesting, then, that BU doesn't publicize the sex breakdown of its student body on its website.

Richard Nesbitt, admissions director at Williams College, which is just 52 percent female, sees things differently. "If we got to 60--40, that would set off some alarm bells because we would like to have a 50--50 split," he says, adding balance is desirable "in terms of the social atmosphere and so forth."

Nesbitt says Williams's past as an all--men's college, plus strong math and science departments and athletics programs, helps keep the male numbers higher than the average. A few other formerly all--male schools, such as Princeton, actually have male majorities. But while the situation isn't yet alarming for such schools as Williams, Nesbitt calls it "alarming in terms of what's happening in our society."

The Department of Education doesn't appear to agree. The home of Title IX enforcement continues to be so preoccupied with advancing women that a recent 50--page study called Gender Differences in Participation and Completion of Undergraduate Education focuses not on the shortfall of men that's evident in practically every data point, but on tiny subpopulations of women who still have "risk characteristics," such as those entering university after age 29. And the department still spends money on studies such as Trends in Educational Equity of Girls and Women: 2004, while ignoring the eye--popping trends for boys and men.

The neglect has extended to the press as well, though there are a few signs that the blackout may be ending. The Chronicle of Higher Education, the bible of college and university news, has hardly touched the issue. EdWeek, while it has done better, still devotes less ink to the current gender gap than it does to women. And a recent piece in the Washington Post is an encouraging sign. As for state governments, inquiries around the country have turned up only a single public body studying the problem, a commission in Maine that is due to publish a study of boys' underperformance in education in January. It's true that President Bush mentioned boys' troubles in the 2005 State of the Union, but his aim was to "keep young people out of gangs, and show young men an ideal of manhood that respects women and rejects violence." Only a few business groups have looked at young men's academic performance, as have a handful of private researchers and authors.

Yet the trends are grave. Women outstrip men in education despite that there are 15 million men and 14.2 million women aged 18--24 in the country. Kentucky colleges enroll at least 67 first--year women for every 50 men. Delaware has 74 first--year women for every 50 men.

The gender gap is even more palpable within the colleges themselves, because women and men gravitate to different majors. While a split in preferences has always been the case, the gender imbalance in the overall college makes departments so segregated that campus life just ain't what it used to be. In North Carolina's public and private universities, a typical psychology class has four women for every man. In education, the ratio is five to one. The English and foreign language departments are heavily female as well.

The consequences go far beyond a lousy social life and the longer--term reality that many women won't find educated male peers to marry. There are also academic consequences, and economic ones.

Only a few fields, such as business and the social sciences, show men and women signing up at comparable rates. Math, computers, engineering, and the physical sciences continue to be male--dominated (in North Carolina, for example, engineering is 79 percent male), and the total number of graduates in these economically essential fields is often stagnant or declining. Thus, between 1992 and 2002, when the number of bachelor's degree--earners in California's public university system grew by 11 percent, the number of engineering bachelor's degrees shrank by 8 percent. California's private universities fared better, but the gap is still striking: bachelor's degrees grew by 41 percent overall, while bachelor's degrees in engineering grew only 27 percent.

It seems the education system is favoring quantity over quantitative skills. The result? American companies and research organizations that need to employ graduates in quantitative fields have to turn to foreigners. Already, an astounding 40 percent of all the master's degrees awarded by American institutions in science, engineering, and information technology go to foreign students, as do 45 percent of all Ph.D.s in those fields, according to a study of the gender gap in education by the Business Roundtable in Washington, D.C.

The answer that education experts keep recycling is that American girls need to be encouraged to go into quantitative fields. After all, if there's one thing Harvard president Larry Summers taught the nation, it's that questioning women's aptitude for science is an absolute no--no. But surely some reflection is needed on whether science, mathematics, and engineering wouldn't be more attractive to American boys if more of them were encouraged to discover, at an early age, whether they have strengths in those fields and were warmly encouraged to pursue them in their schooling.

We're certainly not seeing any such encouragement these days. While much of the gender imbalance in higher education results from girls' advancing through high school and into university in greater proportions than boys, there are a few categories of boys who are stuck or losing ground. The high school dropout rate for white boys hovers around 7 percent, at a time when girls-black, white, and Hispanic-are making annual progress in cutting their dropout numbers, as are black and Hispanic boys. (To be sure, the Hispanic boys' high school dropout rate remains astonishingly high, and contributes to the overall college imbalance: 26.7 percent in 2003, a rate not seen since the early 1970s among black boys and girls.)

Young men also drop out of college more readily than young women do. And even in affluent, educated, white suburbs, fewer twelfth--grade boys make plans to attend college than girls do, according to a study by the Boston Private Industry Council. Unfortunately, a student who defers college enrollment increases his odds of never attending. All of this makes the pool of applicants to college predominantly female, and the pool of enrollees more female as well.

What is going on? Schools are not paying enough attention to the education of males. There's too little focus on the cognitive areas in which boys do well. Boys have more disciplinary problems, up to 10 percent are medicated for Attention Deficit Disorder, and they thrive less in a school environment that prizes what Brian A. Jacob of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government calls "noncognitive skills." These include the ability to pay attention in class, to work with others, to organize and keep track of homework, and to seek help from others. Where boys and girls score comparably on cognitive skills, boys get worse grades in the touchy--feely stuff. Perhaps not coincidentally, boys reportedly enjoy school less than girls do, and are less likely to perceive that their teachers support them, according to studies of Hispanic dropouts.

Harvard's Jacob is one of the few scholars to have studied the gender gap in higher education. His statistical analysis suggests it is boys' lack of skill in these noncognitive areas that is the principal cause of the gap. Other factors, which include young men choosing to go into the military or winding up in prison, account for only about one--sixth of the spread, according to his calculations.

Plain old economics is at work as well. Consider that among Hispanic boys, the wage gap between high school dropouts and high school graduates is much smaller than for whites and blacks. Hispanic boys may figure that high college tuition and four more years of touchy--feely classroom work is less appealing than a job and an immediate income. The economic draw of the workplace holds great sway over male college dropouts as well. A "need to work" accounted for fully 28 percent of male dropouts' reasons for leaving college, but only 18 percent of women dropouts' reasons, according to a Department of Education study. The men were also more likely than women to report academic problems and dissatisfaction with classes as their reasons for leaving.

Whatever the precise combination of causes, the imbalance on today's campuses can only be harmful in its social and economic effects. In a rational world, the Bush administration would take a serious look at whether continued enforcement of Title IX is keeping men away from college. At a minimum, the federal Department of Education would follow the example of the state of Maine and mine its statistics for detailed information about boys. Only then would researchers be equipped to address the problem.

Even now, almost two decades after the failure of the effort to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, the culture is still in thrall to feminist orthodoxy. The Bush administration declined to do battle against Title IX three years ago, essentially preserving the status quo when college sports teams sued for reforms. Meanwhile, the myopic bureaucrats at the Department of Education are unlikely to take their heads out of the sand unless forced to: As if prompted by the imminent release of Maine's report on how to help boys catch up, the National Center for Education Statistics led its website on December 1 with a colorful chart displaying the sex breakdown at a single high school-one in Bangor, where it just happens that boys outnumber girls.

Melana Zyla Vickers is a columnist at TCSDaily.com.