It’s become a familiar scene on campuses around the country: a crowd of college women loitering on the green, with hardly a man in sight. But these aren’t women’s colleges—they’re co-ed institutions, where women now so outnumber men that admissions officers are beginning to fret. Today, females make up about 57% of undergraduates, an enormous leap over the last several decades. College women are thriving, while men seem to be flailing.
Before 1972, when Title IX made gender discrimination illegal in federally-funded education, only 18% of American women had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 26% of men. By 1994, men and women were graduating in equal numbers. In the last decade, women have tipped the balance. These days, the odds a woman between 25 and 34 has a bachelor’s degree (or more) are 1 in 3.06, while the odds for a man of the same age are just 1 in 3.89. The University of North Carolina is about 60% female, as are many public universities and liberal arts colleges.
Why this trend? For one thing, girls tend to get higher grades in school than boys, particularly as efforts have grown to improve girls’ performance in math and science. As new standards have increasingly emphasized verbal skills, boys have fallen even further behind. Some researchers argue that young men simply learn differently, and standard teaching methods aren’t optimized for them. And boys—especially low-income black and Hispanic boys, who are the most underrepresented in colleges—drop out (and are expelled) at disproportionate rates.
The imbalance is setting college social scenes off-kilter. Dating proves difficult, and some college women have observed that men have gained power in sexual relationships. Cheating on a girlfriend can become perfectly acceptable. Richard Whitmire, author of Why Boys Fail, tells USA Today that the minority gender sets the rules. Where young men dominate, young women can be forced into demeaning roles in order to win the men’s attention.
Private educational institutions are not legally bound to gender-blind admissions. They can deliberately admit male applicants at a higher rate than females in order to maintain a gender balance. But many hesitate to do so, in part because it raises thorny questions about civil rights for female applicants.
Plus, the idea of “affirmative action”—at least when it comes to white men—seems incongruous. Affirmative action in college admissions is intended to redress a fundamentally uneven playing field in education. Do young white men really need a boost? They’ll still earn a dollar to their sisters’ 77 cents once in the workforce. And even if they don’t have a degree, male earning power is less affected by the lack of a diploma (at least in the early years of a career). And young men’s enrollment isn’t dropping—it just hasn’t increased at the same rate as women’s. Is this really a crisis?
Of more concern, it seems, is the gender gap’s overlap with other achievement disparities, based on race and socioeconomic background. Men and women from the highest income bracket attend college at about the same rate; as family income goes down, the gender gap widens. Since black, Hispanic, and American Indian young people are more likely than white children to live in poverty, the gender imbalance may really be another symptom of the wider crevasses in the education system. Children from low-income and minority backgrounds, boys, in particular, are fighting an uphill battle from pre-school onward.
More male teachers ( particularly of colour), hands-on learning, and strategies for engaging young boys in literacy will benefit boys of all backgrounds (they’ll probably serve girls, too). Efforts to improve schooling in low-income areas and make higher education more affordable will also likely improve the gender ratio in the long term. In the meantime, college women will have to adjust—and appreciate that the imperfect position they’re in is still a privilege their grandmothers didn’t enjoy.
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