Globe and Mail

Real men stay in school

We must change the incentives that favour boys dropping out

Tuesday, May 4, 1999
The Globe and Mail

The more we learn about the differences in educational experience of boys and girls, the more worrisome it becomes. Unlike the 1970s and 1980s, however, when the focus was understandably on how poorly the schools were doing in making math and science accessible to girls and on the lack of women in universities, it is now boys who are trailing. Improved educational outcomes for women are proof that the system can change; social equity as well as economic self-interest now require that young men get the education they need to be productive and participating members of Canadian society.

Boys have been losing ground in the postsecondary world for some years. In 1971, 61 per cent of postsecondary students were men. By 1997-98, only 45 per cent were. In 1981, 30.6 per cent of boys had dropped out of high school; the corresponding figure for girls was 28.3 per cent. Fifteen years later, we had cut that dropout rate by one-third for boys, but it had fallen by nearly one-half for girls.

What we can now add to this picture are data regarding the differing attitudes of young men and women on the value of education. Recent research, for example, shows that teenaged boys do not seem to be making the link between schooling and success in the labour market. On the contrary, during the economic downturn in the early 1990s, they went back to school solely because they couldn't get work at all. And as economic prospects improve, they are again being drawn prematurely into jobs, thus risking low pay and recurring unemployment. These attitudes contrast strongly with those of adolescent girls and young women, who are much more likely to be convinced that getting a good education will pay dividends in the future.

It is true that high-school dropouts in Canada often return and complete their education as young adults, so that the dropout rate can be somewhat misleading. Still, the fact remains that men are far more likely than women never to finish high school and not to go on to postsecondary education.

Both supply and demand are at work in explaining the behaviour of young men. A strong demand for labour, even at low starting wages, can be a powerful inducement to abandon school and get a start in life, if your time horizon only extends to next week. Thus, when times are good, we can expect more young men to abandon school. Just as important is the matter of supply: Clearly, young men are being given an educational experience that many of them want to escape as soon as possible, an experience that they are not convinced will improve their economic prospects.

That suggests that recent emphasis on "youth unemployment" programs is a mistake. In fact, there is little evidence that unemployment is any worse for youth today than usual, and the more demand there is for unskilled young men, the greater the temptation is for them to abandon their studies. Any efforts to get young people into work should focus exclusively on part-time jobs for students, to let them earn money while studying, or on programs that combine work and school. Moreover, we need to reward schools that are successful in keeping potential dropouts in the classroom, while encouraging those that fail to retain students to improve their performance.

If we are as determined in meeting this problem as we have been in addressing the educational obstacles facing young women, many young men and their future families will be spared blighted economic prospects. When girls needed help, we responded. Now it's the boys' turn.

Copyright © 1999 The Globe and Mail