National Post

April 24, 2002

Let's make sure boys get to university

Stephen T. Easton
National Post

The last decade of the 20th century saw a profound change in the enrollment structure of Canadian higher education. From 1987 to 1997, total university enrollment increased from 486,000 to 573,000. At the same time, the percentage of women enrolled increased from rough parity in 1987 to a level where there are now 120 women for every 100 men on campus. Remarkably, the national average is is reflected faithfully at the provincial level. This may be a boon for the social lives of the young men, but the implications of this shift are as important and concerning today, as they were when the ratio was the reverse -- long ago in 1979.

In principle there is little reason to believe that a university education should be directed primarily at either men or women. Most educators in this day and age would presume that a rough kind of equality should be present among our most well-educated. And yet that is increasingly not the case in Canada today.

If more women are enrolled relative to men in university, where have the boys gone? Although the evidence points to a falling proportion of young men turning to a full-time university education, there is little change in the male to female participation in part-time university education, and a relatively constant percentage of women to men within the college system. Any substitution of college for university is modest. Clearly, fewer men in their age cohort are going to university.

There are several possible explanations for the increasing proportion of young women in our universities. First, the financial return to women receiving a university degree has been rising for some time. It pays relatively better for women to receive higher education today than it did in the past. This helps to explain both the increasing number of young women turning to higher education and the changing ratio of women to men. Secondly, the financial return to young men in higher education is declining. Although a puzzle in its own right that raises the possibility that university is less relevant to the careers aspired to by young men, the falling financial return also helps explain both the changing ratio and the decline in the number of young men seeking university degrees.

A third possible explanation focuses on what I like to call the "supply" of students. If high schools better prepare young women than men, and if universities are sex-blind and do not admit men differentially, then women will tend to be entering university in relatively greater proportion.

In British Columbia, for example, while on average boys may receive higher or lower marks than girls on their provincially graded final exams, on average boys always receive poorer marks than girls in their school-based assessment. Since school-based assessment provides 60% of the final grade in provincially examinable Grade 12 classes, it has a significant impact on the ability of different students to graduate or to qualify for university.

We have for years emphasized the importance of young women going to university. Institutionally we have placed increasing weight on areas of secondary school performance in which girls are relatively more successful. Could it be that we are now missing the obvious? Boys need remediation to be as successful in reaching for higher education as girls once did.

Is this latest development in university enrollment a good thing? That is a debate worth having. Perhaps men simply make more money in some kinds of computer technologies and sports for which university education is less of a prerequisite, in which case there is no need to worry about their university attendance. Or, in a world in which we expect jobs increasingly to emphasize the accumulation of knowledge, we might regret following policies that made it more difficult for men to qualify for university.

It used to be that mothers were enjoined not to let their boys grow up to be cowboys. Let's make sure that this is not the only job for which they qualify.

Stephen T. Easton is Professor of Economics at Simon Fraser University and a Senior Fellow of The Fraser Institute.

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