Men and Women in Higher education illustration

Marie Bigham sat down in her first admissions committee meeting 25 years ago. As a newly appointed associate director of admissions at Washington University in St. Louis, her alma mater, Bigham was tasked with helping decide which students get admitted to one of the nation’s most selective universities. A quarter-century later, she still remembers a comment made by the person in charge as she and her colleagues discussed the prospective students.

“Remember,” Bigham recalls them saying, “we love our boys and we need more boys.”

She had this conversation in 1997, a full 25 years after the implementation of Title IX. When the landmark legislation codified equal opportunity for women in education into law in 1972, more than 15% of men held college degrees as opposed to just 9% of women. But the less-than-subtle reminder from Bigham’s boss was, and is, a reminder of higher education’s ongoing focus on gender balance in admissions, a response to the ever-diminishing pool of male applicants and, consequentially, matriculated students. Women currently make up almost 60% of all college students, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

Title IX is likely just one of several social gains for women that helped fuel this shift, along with accessible birth control, the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision and the second-wave feminist movement. The result is a gender gap in university enrollment that has prompted concern from leaders in education nationwide. Women have been making strides in higher education since the 1950s, reaching parity with men in the early 1980s and continuing their demographic growth ever since. As a result, colleges are eager to admit boys, even when they’re less qualified than their female counterparts.

“My professional experience is that being a boy is like putting the thumb on the scale,” said Bigham, co-founder and executive director of ACCEPT Group, a nonprofit focused on equity and diversity issues in college admissions. “It’s like an extra 70 to 100 points on the SAT.”

As someone who has worked both in university admissions and as a high school counselor, Bigham is well aware of how gender can impact admissions. Throughout her tenure, gender parity has been a goal of co-ed institutions across the country. She recalls admissions officers at schools apologizing for having more women than men as she toured, including one particularly memorable visit to the College of Charleston.

“They kept talking about ‘We can’t achieve gender balance because we don’t have football [and] boys don’t go to a college without a football team,’” she said.

According to the Clearinghouse statistics, however, men don’t seem to want to go to college at all, at least not at nearly the rate women do. Patricia Anderson, a professor of economics at Dartmouth University, took note of this phenomenon back in 2000. She wrote, “Where the Boys No Longer Are: Recent Trends in U.S. College Enrollment Patterns” to try to understand exactly why. She found that boys may view the opportunity cost of college, or the deferred wages they lost out on while studying, to be too high to justify attendance.

“‘I’m giving up being a factory worker or construction worker, clerk, whatever it is, and in return, I’m going to make more money further down the road,’” Anderson said, articulating her theory. “That’s going to outweigh the current cost. But how you value the future depends on how patient you are.”

Even 20 years ago, Anderson felt this hypothesis was incomplete. While some men were able to earn steady wages without a degree, union jobs with livable salaries and benefits were becoming increasingly scarce at the time — a trend that has only grown since 2000. Men then and now aren’t able to rely on certain industries with consistent benefits and steady wages, like manufacturing, to provide stable, guaranteed work as they might have half a century ago. Regardless, she said, “men keep not going to college.”

Dr. Sandra Lane, a professor of anthropology and public health at Syracuse University, said she also took note of this trend around the same time. She noticed that women had begun to outnumber men in her anthropology department and decided to explore whether any other academics had noted this trend. She found one: Christine Hoff Sommers, a conservative writer and philosopher who blamed the feminist movement for pushing boys out of academia. And while she wasn’t completely on board with Sommers’s condemnation of feminism, they both felt the gender gap was a phenomenon with potentially vast consequences worth recognizing and exploring.

Female Dominance

In the past century, the number of women earning bachelor’s degrees in the United States steadily increased annually until the 1980s when they officially surpassed male graduates. Now about 300,000 more degrees are awarded to women every year compared with men.

By 2010, Lane had become fascinated with the ever-growing gender gap. “I started raising this everywhere: ‘What happened to the boys? Where are they?’” she said. “Nobody was interested, and the reason nobody was interested in that was the people who traditionally study inequality are all at that time really still looking at women’s access to resources, power, education.”

In 2022, experts have begun to question the enrollment gap en masse. Major outlets from The New York Times to The Washington Post to The Atlantic have begun exploring this phenomenon over the past few years. One Chronicle of Higher Education feature, 2021’s “The Missing Men,” explored how the pandemic has exacerbated this already growing gap. Steven Mintz, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, penned his own op-ed in 2019 explaining how men were falling behind in education. He also suspects that finances play a role, though he believes that isn’t the only factor.

“This is a longstanding development, which can be interpreted in contrasting ways,” Mintz said. “One perspective is that men, unlike women, have more job opportunities that do not require a college degree — for example, in construction, manufacturing and sales. The contrasting perspective is that many men, for a variety of reasons, are uninterested in or even hostile toward education, which they view as feminized and a waste of time.”

Like Mintz, Lane also suspected that economic elements were at least one factor, contributing to low enrollment numbers.

“In some cases, there was nepotism,” she said. “You know, there were more jobs available for lower-performing, lower-educated men. Men could, without as much education, make a good living being in a union. All those things weigh in on this.”

Still, she believed those factors didn’t explain the entire phenomenon. Lane knew there had to be some level of discrepancy in performance. She repeatedly asked herself the same question: Are men getting worse, or are women getting better? Her conclusion wasn’t as black and white as her query.

“Females got better,” Lane said. “Females were encouraged. You know, ‘Just Do It,’ all the Nike ads and stuff, right? And parents knew that females needed to earn a living. So that pushed parents to say, ‘You have to do better in school. You might have to support your family.’ Even traditional parents want their girls to do well in school. Males were not given any more encouragement than they already got.”

Experts have posited another hypothesis: The college application process requires executive functioning and delayed gratification, and male 18-year-olds may not be as well equipped as their female counterparts.

“I went to a talk a couple of years ago with a woman who is a child psychiatrist and does a ton of research on brain development,” Bigham said. “And she said to this room of college counselors, ‘You all are literally miracle workers, especially if you work with boys, because you somehow get them to do a task that requires executive functioning skills that teenage brains literally aren’t developed enough for.’”

By the time a student makes it to their senior year of high school, when their application lands on the desk of some admissions counselor, the results of these disparities — real or imagined — are already pretty pronounced. Still, Bigham looks back on her career on the university side of admissions and wonders if gender balance was even a goal worth pursuing.

“My snarky reaction always to that is: I never heard anyone talking about the desperate need for gender balance when women were so underrepresented,” Bigham said. “Really, it’s just when boys seem to be falling behind and suddenly it’s a thing. This whole argument that we need gender balance – there’s really very little to back it up.”

“When you really, really, truly drill into it,” she continued, “administrators will say, ‘Well, it’s because girls want a boy balance and boys want a girl balance because, you know, dating.’”

While the woes of college-aged dating may seem trivial, Americans are likely already living in the wake of the college gender gap’s impact on the marriage market. While heterosexual women have traditionally selected partners with more education than they have, there simply aren’t enough highly educated men to do that anymore. Lane recalls asking a group of younger colleagues how they were navigating this restructured landscape: “These were high-profile younger colleagues who had Ph.D.s. And I said, ‘Who are you going to marry?’ They looked at me and said, ‘Sandy, have you seen our husbands? We are all married to men who have much less education than we do.’”

The focus on dating and marriage in college is a social concern as opposed to an academic one, and for many students – particularly those in the middle and upper class – college is a very social experience. For low-income and first-generation students, though, college can present a crucial opportunity for upward mobility. When analyzing the enrollment gender gap as well as the conversation surrounding it, it’s crucial to note that young men of color face different barriers to higher education than white men. This is an argument not only to create programs, generate funding and provide mentors to young men of color but also to reframe the rhetoric around the so-called gender gap to include all colleges, not just name-brand, highly selective schools in the top 100 U.S. News and World Report rankings.

Dr. Adrian Huerta, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California, focuses his research on college enrollment and graduation equity for men of color. Huerta explains that higher education discrepancies for men of color can be traced all the way back to grade school.

This became particularly true during the COVID-19 pandemic when career technical ed and other vocational programs were forced to shut down because of their hands-on nature.

“You can’t play with the models or, you know, learn HVAC over Zoom,” Huerta said.

The college gender gap is a phenomenon littered with asterisks and caveats. For one thing, men still dominate business and STEM fields. Additionally, when academics talk about growth in “missing men,” they are often talking about the middle-class white men that have long made up the majority of male students. Financial need, the school-to-prison pipeline, violence in low-income neighborhoods: All of these have prevented young men of color from entering college in the first place, and the barriers of racism and poverty certainly predate the 1970s.

Boys of color are often subjected to more punitive experiences within school as well, a phenomenon known as the school-to-prison pipeline. “The students that are being suspended more are Black and Latino students, Native American students, Pacific Islander and Southeast Asian students,” Huerta said. “So they’re the ones who are taking the brunt of school suspension and expulsion. That signals to educators is that the kid’s a problem, that the kid’s a bad kid. So when it comes to college advising, are you going to focus on the good kids or the bad kids?”

By the time many young men of color reach the college application process, they’ve already been labeled by others and themselves as “not college material.” Even when they do make it to college, this stigma follows them.

“You’ve been conditioned throughout your whole life not to ask others for help, not to engage in help-seeking behaviors,” Huerta said. “So when you get into college, if you still subscribe to that because you haven’t de-programmed yourself, then you’re not going to ask for help when you’re struggling. And then you get kicked out.”

Bigham has noticed this trend in her own work. Bigham – who is based out of New Orleans, one of the incarceration capitals of the world – said she knows exactly where so many Black and brown men are going instead of university. “It makes sense that they’re not in college because we’ve stuck them in prison instead,” she said. “Whereas white boys get to make many of the same errors and mistakes, and then they get to college.”

Experts may agree that the gender gap is real, but solutions remain hard to come by. Bigham described a program in Idaho where high school students who meet certain benchmarks are automatically admitted to state schools, an attempt to remove the onerous bureaucratic barriers from the college application process. The offer is good for three years, which means students can begin university as late as 21 without penalty. While boys and girls alike would benefit from a program like this, it might directly address the maturity gap between male and female students, and allow boys to catch up before undergrad begins. Supporting students who pursue apprenticeships and trade schools could be another way to set boys up for greater success; not attending a four-year college is, of course, only a problem if a four-year college is something you need, and this isn’t the case for every student.

“The United States is unique in the lack of apprenticeships and the poor quality of its job training programs,” Mintz said. “This society expends a great deal of money on colleges and universities but a trivial amount on other forms of training. So one possible solution is to redirect some of the current spending toward hands-on programs in areas of high demand.”

Huerta has focused much of his research on college readiness and higher education mentorship programs. While there’s no perfect model to copy and paste into every community, he said he has seen particular success among well-funded programs that follow boys and men all the way from elementary to higher education, fostering long-term mentor relationships.

He mentioned a program in Sacramento, Calif., called Improve Your Tomorrow. “It starts, I think, in late elementary school and follows them all the way into college,” Huerta said. “They’re able to recruit student mentors or peer mentors who attended those schools, so then they have someone that isn’t from the outside. It’s someone’s who’s like, ‘Oh, I grew up on this street two blocks over.’”

He also emphasized the importance of responding to community demographics when setting up these programs.

“What are the demographics of your community, and what does the data say? If you’re in a community that’s 85% Black, then obviously you would need a Black male program.”

These solutions all provide new opportunities for boys and other students who may feel stifled by the norm. They also provide an alternative to punishing girls during the enrollment process for outperforming their male counterparts, expanding the funnel toward career success instead of narrowing the standard for girls in order to make room for boys. All would be welcome changes to the status quo, which penalizes women for their high achievement without solving the issues that are keeping men out of college. Right now, that doesn’t seem to be the case. As Lane puts it, “We fought a whole feminist revolution so people could choose what they want, right?”

As Bigham simply puts it, what women want to do is go to college.

“So we’re going to punish girls for believing us when we told them that they can be anything they wanted?”