Back in the “before times,” I sat down with my high school counselor to discuss colleges. When I mentioned I was considering the College of William & Mary, she made a comment to the effect of, “Oh, you’ll probably get in. They need guys.” That surprised me. I knew that I had many lovely and desirable qualities to offer as an applicant, but I did not consider my sex among them.
As it turns out, W&M does want men, and they are not the only school struggling to balance their gender ratio. A report from the Wall Street Journal, using data from the National Student Clearinghouse, found that men lag behind women almost universally in higher education. Women send out more applications, are more likely to attend two- and four-year institutions and are more likely to finish their degree. Women make up the majority of graduate and doctoral degree recipients. STEM majors such as computer science or engineering are two of the few majority male realms within higher education remaining. Without a reversal in current trends, the ratio of degree holders by gender will soon be 2-to-1 favoring women.
On its face, the college gender gap is not problematic. American society perpetuated the reverse outcome for centuries by actively discouraging or preventing women from pursuing higher education. Women did not make up half of college students until 1979, a few years after the passage of Title IX, a federal law that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex, gender or race. Even though women now outpace men in higher education achievement, these benefits have not translated to their professional careers. Men still dominate high-paying careers, such as the aforementioned tech industry. The existence of today’s enrollment gap is not the result of a culture that discourages men from pursuing college or careers that require a college degree, but it is also unclear what the exact reason is. As my anecdotal William & Mary example illustrates, men are making the conscious decision to pursue other career paths.
Having more college-educated women is a fair outcome, since men did not and do not face the discrimination that women did in the past. Yet, some college admissions offices are practicing affirmative action on behalf of men, given that our generation will still need to reckon with the consequences that inevitably stem from this major social change. As University of Michigan Professor Justin Wolfers wrote in the New York Times, “The simple mathematics of more women than men earning college degrees means that many highly educated women will either have to partner with less educated men, or forgo partnership.” Wolfers points to the well-documented trend of “assortative mating,” which shows that men and women are increasingly choosing to marry someone from a similar educational background. If a growing number of women expect to marry someone with a college degree, and there are fewer men meeting that criterion, then there will be a population of women unable to find a partner that satisfies their preferences. He speculates that a potential resolution for couples will be the reshuffling of household roles; perhaps men will take on more responsibilities historically taken on by women, such as child care and housework, while women become equal or primary earners.
However, this role reversal would only work if the vast majority of men are willing to radically shift their perception of masculinity in a relatively short amount of time. Americans seem stuck on the idea of breadwinning as an intrinsically male characteristic. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic cautions that a greater gulf in education between men and women might compound the already stark political divide across genders and between Americans who received a post-secondary education and those who did not. It is not apparent to me that a more polarized electorate would breed a revolutionary shift in beliefs about gender roles, but it is unquestionable that America could do without additional division.
Explanations for why boys fare poorly in education are diverse. Some experts point to family structure, socioeconomic status, the slower development of boys’ brains and the increase in single-parent households led by mothers. Other arguments take a different tack. Another persistent set of theories is that feminism and/or the feminization of the American education system, its unwelcome byproduct, have deterred boys from education as a whole.
According to Washington Post Opinion columnist Kathleen Parker, the promulgation of the “girl power” (or “girl boss,” if you will) model throughout American society has destroyed boys’ ability to identify positive male role models in their life and feel confident in their gender identity, further harming educational outcomes. Arguments of this ilk are not new. Parker cites Christina Hoff Sommers, author of “The War Against Boys,” which argues in a similar vein that decades of feminist advocacy focused on bettering the outcome of girls’ education has succeeded so well that boys have been left behind in their wake.
I worry about the potential for Parker and Sommers’ diagnosis to go mainstream. They are well-intentioned, but there is a possibility that drawing a line of causation between feminism and the education gap could have serious unintended consequences. Their argument critically leaves out the fact that women are still not on equal footing with men in the professional world, especially in high-paying and executive roles. Wider appreciation of their argument among male readers might lead to a surge in unproductive, misogynistic grievance politics, akin to the anti-feminist movement gaining steam in South Korea. Even if the college gender gap in higher education is a problem, attributing it to feminism is not the avenue toward resolving it.
Before advocating for specific policies aimed at narrowing the college gender gap, America needs to learn more about the problem. So far, we do not have a clear picture of why men are abandoning college. Students considering a career in academic research should consider whether they might be interested in examining the relationship between men and higher education. At the very least, students should not ignore the problem, nor mindlessly buy into the belief that the feminist movement is somehow responsible. Without a more comprehensive understanding of the issue, we may end up creating misguided, ineffective policies and open the floodgates to a more polarized social and political future.
Alex Yee is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.