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Where the Guys Are: Males in Higher Education

Tomorrow's Academy

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Males account for only 43 percent of US undergraduates; should we do something about it? Yes: determine which are most disadvantaged, examine where those who are not in college go, and craft responses that are suited to individual institutional contexts. 



The posting below looks at the many factors that explain the discrepancy between male and female college enrollments in the U.S, and offers some suggestions on how to address this issue.  It is by Marcus B. Weaver-Hightower from the article, Where the Guys Are: Males in Higher Education in the Date, 2010 issue of Change: The Magazine of Higher Education, http:// ©2010 Taylor & Francis Group · 325 Chestnut Street, Suite 800, Philadelphia, PA · 19106 · All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Where the Guys Are: Males in Higher Education


In 2006, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, dean of admissions at Kenyon College in Ohio, scandalized many readers of The New York Times by her op-ed ("To All the Girls I've Rejected," March 23) about a relatively secret practice that many college admissions officers had been engaging in for years: giving preferential treatment to male applicants. Considering US colleges' history of discrimination against women, this is to many a curious practice. How could colleges and universities be giving "affirmative action"-if that's what it can be called-to men? Why admit supposedly less-qualified males and consequently reject superior female applicants? Have we been so successful improving girls' performance in school that we have, ironically, made it harder for them to get into college?

Even as a sense of a "boy crisis" in schools grips the public, enrollment and degree-attainment gaps between women and men in college-women now earn nearly three of every five degrees-have garnered headlines and provoked debate. To some, these statistics are just more proof of a "war" against boys being waged in the larger culture and educational systems. To others, these statistics miss the larger inequalities that women still face and represent a backlash against women's gains. I contend that such debates only scratch the

surface of men's experiences and outcomes in higher education. How and why might we think differently about where "the guys" are in our colleges and universities?

In this article, I want to go beyond just enrollment numbers to examine key indicators about male experience in college. As I will show, the story about men in higher education doesn't boil down to either "men are in trouble" or "men are fine," as popular debates might suggest. Instead, both assertions have some truth. Higher education professionals must think broadly and, even more importantly, context-specifically about college men. Doing otherwise-ignoring the nuances of men's and women's educational lives-might actually

exacerbate social inequalities while still not solving any of the problems faced by men and the institutions that serve them.

                                                          How AreThey Doing?

The statistics on male and female enrollments are well known: current figures from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) show that nearly 57 percent of undergraduate students are female, while in graduate school females are already over 60 percent of enrollments. These gaps are projected to grow, with women expected to become almost 59 percent of undergraduates and the majority of degree recipients at every degree level by 2018 (NCES, Projection of Education Statistics to 2018, 2009). Currently, men only exceed women at the doctoral level, though this advantage is quickly shrinking.

But in comparing males to females, we sometimes get the impression that boys and men are doing worse than they did before or-a much more insidious and baseless notion-that girls and women are in some way causing the difficulties of boys and men. Such views are rooted in a battle-of-the-sexes mentality that made for interesting tennis matches in the 1970s but leads to misguided educational policy today.

Proportion disparities may create problems, but more men attend college today than ever before, and their numbers keep rising (see Figure 1). It's just that women's enrollments have risen faster-there was a 29 percent jump in female enrollments between 1997 and 2007 versus a 22 percent jump for males.

Figure 1. Undergraduate Enrollment Trends, 1970-2010.  See note at the end of this posting.

Further disaggregating the data by race, social class, and other factors-asking "which males?"-is crucial to identifying and prioritizing men's difficulties. As Figure 2 shows, African-American and Hispanic males are much less likely to have a postsecondary degree than both their white and Asian-American peers and females of color; there is a 44-percent difference in college attainment between Hispanic and Asian-American males. To view the male-female gap in enrollment without regard to race, then, is to miss important dynamics

that help explain it.

Figure 2. Percentage of Population 25 or Older With a Postsecondary Degree of Any Kind, 2008. See note at the end of this posting.

Socioeconomic status also has a significant impact. Working-class and impoverished males are less likely to attend college than their middle- and especially upper-class peers. According to the American Council on Education, in 2003-2004 male college attendees from the lowest income quartile amounted to only 44 percent. The middle two quartiles were 47 percent male, while the highest quartile actually had more males than females, 52 percent. Clearly, to understand which men are most in need, we must account for socioeconomic status. To ignore class by focusing on all males is to extend even more privilege to those men who are already doing quite well.

                                                               Beyond Enrollment

Looking deeper, the statistics on engagement, achievement, and outcomes-what happens during the college years-also suggest that many college men do have a problem. Data from the 2006 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study of the 2003-2004 cohort of students at all postsecondary institutions, for instance, shows women exceeding men both in the percentage who have attained their degrees four years later and in the percentage who are still enrolled. Men are thus much more likely to have dropped out of college.

The 2009 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) also shows that college males excel their female peers in only about a third of the categories of engagement, including tutoring, working with faculty outside of class, and relaxing and exercising. This leaves women more engaged in two-thirds of the categories, including coming to class prepared, participating in community outreach, reading books independent of coursework, taking foreign languages, and participating in study abroad.

Males' academic achievement, too, is cause for concern. Women get better grades than men and are more likely to develop aspirations for graduate and professional degrees-and ultimately, women get these advanced degrees at a higher rate than men.

Still, many indicators show men doing well. Men are less likely than women to experience stress and depression, and they report better physical and emotional health. Men are also more likely to graduate

with confidence in themselves and their own abilities than are their female classmates (see Sax). And they are more confident with good reason: men are more likely to be employed after college and to be better paid than their female peers. It remains true that men are more than half (though sometimes only barely) of degree recipients in the disciplines that are particularly influential and high paying, including medicine, computer science, law, engineering, and business.

Indeed, despite greater female degree attainment, in nearly every measure of social power-including money and positions in industry and government-men still dominate. Women continue to require more education to achieve economic parity with their less-educated male peers. Consider Figure 3, which shows that women need at least one more degree than men do to make similar amounts of money. That men and women both know this and make their educational decisions accordingly should provoke little surprise.

Figure 3. Gender Gap in Median Earnings by Level of Education. See note at the end of this posting.

Whatever the statistic brought to bear, one must remember that differences between the sexes are usually quite small. In the student-engagement scores from the NSSE, for example, most male and female averages are separated by hundredths of a point differences, nowhere near even the standard deviations within each sex's scores. In other words, you're more likely to find broader differences between any two college men than between a man and a woman.

                                                         Where Are the Guys?

Many of men's problems in colleges and universities are, of course, not simply a higher education concern. What are the larger social dynamics that are driving the results for males? Where are the men who are not coming to college? Knowing this can help admissions and student life officers decide how to direct their efforts and what is outside their control.

First, there is a pipeline problem. Boys have difficulties in elementary and secondary school that continue as they move into postsecondary education. For instance, boys have significantly lower literacy scores than girls, indicating weaknesses in crucial skills for getting through high school and succeeding in college. And boys are less likely than girls to participate in non-athletic extracurricular activities, the very ones that appeal to college admissions officers.

But most important, fewer males than females are taking and passing college preparatory courses, and fewer are actually graduating from high school. All told, many boys in school-and frequently their teachers and parents-are not making college success a priority. Colleges and universities have to work with the schools to improve boys' skills and motivation if they want to have a larger supply of high-quality male applicants.

Part of the difficulty in preparing males for college is that there is pervasive culture of anti-intellectualism for males. The "mook" image of males who are crude, rude, childish risk-takers has become ubiquitous in reality television, television commercials, sitcoms, music, and on the Web.

Selling this kind of masculinity to boys does not instill attitudes conducive to preparing for or succeeding in college. And in trying to market themselves to young men, many colleges and universities have contributed to the problem, and in the process done themselves few favors, by presenting the college experience, especially in commercials aired during televised sports, as cheering at athletic events and chatting on the quad with attractive coeds.

Another common argument has been that difficulties for men in higher education are a reflection of the increasing feminization of colleges and universities as more women become professors and administrators.

The thinking is that female ways of knowing and acting are increasingly required to be successful, so men who cannot or will not act and think in those ways simply don't come to college, don't do well when they do, and/or leave college because of it.

Much evidence, however, contradicts such assertions, including the fact that most faculty and administrators continue to be male, and, according to Sax, men's GPAs, mathematical confidence, leadership skills, emotional well-being, and orientation to science all improve-more than women's, even-with an increase in the proportion of women faculty. Thus, one key to better achievement for men might be more women in positions of influence, not fewer.

Another reason for males' relative lack of interest in college may be that they have more avenues than women for transitioning to adulthood without going through postsecondary education. The military, for one, remains a major option for males. The Army alone recruits roughly 64,000 more college-age high school graduate men than women per year into active duty. The other three military branches are disproportionately male as well. Some men come to college after their service, of course, but many do not.

Joining the workforce also remains a viable option for males. Manufacturing, manual labor, and service jobs still tempt a large proportion of high school boys to forego college or even school. The pay differential for males and females in such jobs (see Figure 3 again) might help explain why these are less attractive to females.

Also, prison is a competing "option" for many men in this age group. In 2008, there were, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 231,600 men between the ages of 18 and 24 in prison. Only 12,600 women 18 to 24 years old were incarcerated that year, a difference of 219,000 potential college students.

Given these social and cultural conditions, colleges and universities clearly have a compelling interest in making college a more viable and attractive option to a broad range of men and in focusing on the social dynamics that remove men from their enrollment pools.

PLEASE NOTE:  The remainder of this article as well as all figures and references is available free of charge courtesy of Change at: