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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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.