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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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