Washington Post

Degrees of Separation

Gender Gap Among College Graduates Has Educators Wondering Where the Men Are

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 25, 2002; Page A01

College Graduation
College graduation ceremonies, such as this one at Prince George's County Community College, are increasingly featuring a higher proportion of female faces. (Larry Morris - The Washington Post)
BALTIMORE -- As Morgan State University President Earl S. Richardson surveyed the sea of newly minted graduates at the school's 126th commencement last month, his joy was tempered by a question that has grown too conspicuous to ignore: Where are all the men?

Not only were the head of student government, the senior class president and 96 of Morgan's 141 honorstudents women, but so were two-thirds of the university's 860 graduates.

At colleges and universities across the United States, the proportion of bachelor's degrees awarded to women reached a post-war high this year at an estimated 57 percent. The gender gap is even greater among Hispanics -- only 40 percent of that ethnic group's college graduates are male -- and African Americans, who are now seeing two women earn bachelor's degrees for every man.

The trend, which began in the mid-1980s, has sparked concern among everyone from business leaders to demographers, who applaud the growing academic success of women but maintain that the lopsided graduation rate may foretell significant problems.

"This is new. We have thrown the gender switch," said Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of "The War Against Boys." "What does it mean in the long run that we have females who are significantly more literate, significantly more educated than their male counterparts? It is likely to create a lot of social problems. This does not bode well for anyone."

Some researchers say the trend could herald a shift in the nation's social dynamic, with educated women unable to find mates of equal educational backgrounds. Business groups are beginning to worry about a possible dwindling share of men to fill top corporate jobs. Last week, the Business Roundtable, an organization of chief executives of some of the nation's top corporations, commissioned a study on the subject.

"As a nation, we simply can't afford to have half of our population not developing the skill sets that we are going to need to go into the future," said Susan L. Traiman, director of the group's education initiative.

Researchers say the growing disparity between the sexes reflects not just the increasing success of women but also the educational problems of men, who account for 51 percent of the nation's college-age population. High school graduation rates for men are now slightly lower than those for women, and male students make up the vast majority of those enrolled in special education classes.

"Girls have been getting stronger and stronger and boys weaker, in almost all the ways that count academically," Sommers said.

After years of being shrugged off, the disparity is prompting increased action around the country. Earlier this month, researchers from Harvard University, the University of Michigan and the United Negro College Fund agreed to study the issue.

"This is a powerful issue we need to stop talking about in generalities and really dig into," said Michael L. Lomax, president of Dillard University in New Orleans.

Lomax has overseen a marketing push that has swelled the school's enrollment from 1,500 to more than 2,100 students during his five-year tenure. But about two-thirds of the applicants and 70 percent of the students at the historically black university are women, despite efforts to recruit men.

"We just can't figure out how to get more male applicants, and we're not going to turn students down on the basis on gender," Lomax said. "I don't understand what is happening in the male community that is making education seem less attractive and less compelling."

In the late 1990s, the University of Georgia began giving an edge in admissions to male applicants, hoping to balance an enrollment that was then about 55 percent female. The university halted the practice in the face of a federal lawsuit.

Men had made up the majority of the nation's college graduates since at least 1870, when the first national survey of bachelor's degrees awarded by colleges and universities found 7,993 male graduates, 1,378 female.

Except for a brief period during World War II, that remained the case until female college enrollment overtook male enrollment in the late 1970s. By the early 1980s, women began outnumbering men among four-year college graduates.

Since then, the number of female bachelor's degree recipients has risen to 698,000 this year, according to U.S. Department of Education estimates. The number of male college graduates has increased much more slowly,to 529,000.

"Women are deeply engaged in the educational process, while the boys are stuck where they were decades ago," said Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, a Washington research organization.

Nobody really knows why this is the case, though theories abound. Some researchers believe women have learning styles that are more conducive to the college classroom. Some say men are more vulnerable to the lures of popular culture. Others say men -- particularly black and Hispanic students, who typically are from poorer families than whites -- feel more pressure than women to work while in school.

"There is still the notion that men should be making their own way," Richardson said. "If they come to campus without money, they want to find a job."

Jay Carrington Chunn, Morgan's associate vice president for academic affairs, said the school has implemented mentoring and tutoring programs aimed at men. Still, "graduation rates are higher, achievement rates are higher and leadership roles are 10 times greater" for women.

Some Morgan students said this simply reflects how serious women are when it comes to school. Muriel M. Dow, 19, a junior telecommunications major who works in marketing for a major record label while carrying a 3.58 grade-point average in school, said, "Females are just more motivated to get into the workforce."

Justin Jones-Fosu, 20, a marketing major at Morgan, said many of his male counterparts spend their college days hanging out in the center of campus "in our social places."

An annual survey of U.S. college freshmen conducted for the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, a national study of higher education overseen by the University of California at Los Angeles, has found consistently that men are more likely than women to spend large amounts of time watching television, partying and exercising during their senior year of high school. Women, meanwhile, report spending more time than men studying or doing homework, talking with teachers outside of class and doing volunteer work.

Similarly, data collected by the College Board indicate that more female students than male students are enrolled in high school academic or college prep programs, that girls are more likely than boys to take high school honors courses in most subjects and that girls report having higher academic aspirations than boys.

"I hesitate to say this, but it seems that women have an orientation not only toward achievement, but also toward being good and pleasing others," said Linda Sax, a UCLA education professor, who is writing a book about how women and men develop differently in college. "I think that accounts for some of women's higher achievement rates."

Women began making substantial educational improvements after the passage of Title IX, the 1972 law that barred sexual discrimination in educational institutions that spend federal money. But even now that women outpace men in receiving bachelor's and master's degrees, they still receive fewer doctoral and professional degrees and continue to lag in a handful of well-paying fields, including engineering and the sciences.

"Title IX has promoted substantial opportunities for women and has been responsible for a wide range of improvements," said Jocelyn Samuels, vice president of the National Women's Law Center, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group. "The job is not yet done."

Still, some researchers and college administrators believe that the shifting male-female balance on campus portends a seismic shift in the nation's social norms, with college-educated women having growing problems finding mates of equal educational footing.

"It is flat out an unhealthy social situation when the gender imbalance gets that bad," Mortenson said. "Already, the lack of marriable men is a hot topic of conversation among black women. They can't see it now, but that is going to happen for white women in the future. You don't create these marriageable men out of the blue at age 30 or 35."

Many analysts believe the trend will not abate until educators know more about what is going on in the development of boys and girls that makes for increasingly disparate educational outcomes.

"One of the first things we need to know is what is happening to boys right after high school," said Michael T. Nettles, a University of Michigan education professor and researcher. "This is something that needs to be carefully examined before we jump to any firm conclusions about its implications for employment opportunities, long-term economic benefits and families."


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