Covid has sidelined many workers, contributing to a labor shortage that shows few signs of abating. Adding to the woes of the labor market are the declining numbers of men now attending and graduating from college. A headline in the Wall Street Journal summed it up — “A Generation of American Men Give Up on College.”
Enrollment in college has been steadily declining; since 2011, it has fallen over 14%. Colleges and universities in the United States now have 1.5 million fewer students than there were in 2015, but men make up over 70% of the decline. The pandemic accelerated this trend.
Enrollment declined by 2.5% (461,000 students) in the Fall of 2020, but the decline among men was more than seven times that of women. Women now make up 60% of enrollment in universities and colleges. Within 10 years, colleges will graduate double as many women as men.
The causes of the decline are not well understood, but one can speculate. Interviews with men suggest that many choose not to enroll in college because they don’t see enough value in a college degree for all the effort and expense required to earn one. Men are far more likely than women to enter the skilled trades to become plumbers, electricians, and carpenters, or auto mechanics. Women make up only about 4% of the labor force employed in trades.
Meanwhile, women typically outperform men in academics. Starting in elementary school, girls get better grades than boys across all major subjects, and put in longer hours studying. Girls graduate high school with an average GPA of 3.1, compared to 2.9 for boys. Boys are also more likely to be held back in school and less likely to graduate from high school. That trend continues into college for those who do enroll — about half of women graduate in four years, compared with only about 40% of men.
Changes in the type of skills in demand has also contributed to the decline in the fortunes of men. Over the last 50 years demand for labor in male-dominated fields such as construction and manufacturing has declined as a consequence of automation and advanced technologies. At the same time, the demand for labor has surged in fields like healthcare and education, which have typically employed more women than men.
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Sociologists have suggested that millions of men lack male role models that can encourage them to gain a college education. Single-parent households are increasingly common, with over 80% being headed by women. Schools don’t fill the gap since about 75% of public-school teachers are women. It’s not that women can’t be role models for boys but rather that boys are more likely to identify with male teachers when they are looking for direction.
No End in Sight
There’s little to suggest that this situation will improve in the foreseeable future, and it’s likely it will become worse. The gender-gap in college education is not unique to the United States. In much of the world the number of women in college has overtaken the number of men. That includes almost all of the 36 member nations of the OECD, and in 39 of 47 countries in central and western Asia. Meanwhile, in Iceland, where there are now two women in college for every man. This is a significant social and economic problem that demands a policy response. Men without a college degree have fewer professional options, and are more likely to face economic hardship.
But there are no easy solutions that will increase the number of men enrolling and graduating from college. Addressing factors like childhood poverty and increasing the number of male teachers will take decades. Some colleges and universities are trying to enroll more men, but such efforts at affirmative action for a segment of the population long considered privileged are unlikely to get much support. Affirming the value of a college education for all, regardless of demographics, would be a start.