The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
I never let my schooling interfere with my education.... ...Mark Twain
Commentary of the Day - June 30, 2000: Where Have All the Boys Gone?
As many of you know, the Irascible Professor works a day job as Chair of the Physics Department at good old Krispy Kreme U.  In the course of that job he deals with all sorts of data related to enrollment trends.  One of the enrollment oddities that came to his attention was the fact that female students now outnumber male students at Krispy Kreme U by a large margin, nearly 60% to 40%.  Initially, the IP thought that this was just a peculiarity of the particular demographics of an urban, comprehensive university that caters to students from low to moderate-income families - many of whom are older, returning students.  Since the enrollments in our physics program remain predominantly male even in the face of substantial efforts to attract more women to the major, this has been a matter of some concern.

The IP recently was at a meeting of the Council on Undergraduate Research (a professional organization that attempts to encourage scientific research in predominantly undergraduate institutions of higher education).  During a lunchtime conversation with some physics colleagues who mostly hailed from private liberal arts colleges, the IP was surprised to find out that the enrollments at these institutions also was about 60% female to 40% male.  A little further checking revealed that the 60-40 ratio holds nationally with little variation across all types of colleges and universities.  According to data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics, the ratio is pretty much the same in private and public institutions, 2-year and 4-year colleges, and research universities.

(Data from the National Center for Education Statistics)

As the chart shows, college enrollment for both men and women in the United States rose rapidly from the mid-1950's until the early 1970's.  At that point male college enrollment flattened out, while female enrollment continued to grow rapidly until the early 1990's.  Men seem to have a somewhat higher persistence level in their college studies, so that the number of bachelors degrees awarded to women did not exceed the number awarded to men until 1991.  However, for almost the last decade women have received more college degrees than men, and the in the cohort of people under 26 years of age more women than men hold bachelors degrees.

Surprisingly, the growing imbalance between male and female college enrollment has received little  attention in the public media and among college and university administrators.  In November of 1999 a conference sponsored by Goucher College (formerly a women's college that has been trying to attract men students), outlined the scope of the problem, but provided no hard data regarding the causes for the imbalance.  The IP was unable to find any references to systematic studies of the causes of the imbalance, even though this is something that college admissions officers seem to be aware of from anecdotal evidence.

At the Goucher conference several conjectures were made for the causes of the problem.  These include the lack of male role models for boys in K-12 education (only 16% of elementary school teachers are male), teaching methods in the early grades that do not take into account the different learning styles of boys (elementary school teachers are far more likely to label boys as "learning disabled"), and the ready availability of relatively well-paying jobs for men that do not require a college education.  In addition, shifts in the ethnic makeup of the K-12 population have been suggested as contributing factors.  Among minority males there seems to be a high degree of peer pressure to avoid doing well in high school.  One factor that does not seem to have been considered is the relatively high number of young minority males who are caught up in the criminal justice system.

However, in the absence of serious studies of the phenomenon all of these conjectures remain just that.  In the general U.S. population there is a slight excess of women in the college age group, and this would account for a slight excess of women students under a situation of reasonable gender equity in higher education.  But it now appears that male students have become a significantly underrepresented minority in higher education.  The long term effects of such under representation are likely to be just as pernicious as the situation that existed when males dominated the ranks of college students and graduates.  For that reason the IP feels that it is imperative first to admit that a problem exists, and second to take steps to understand the causes of the problem so that we can work towards solutions.

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