- The share of men enrolled in college is falling way behind the share of women. In the 2020-21 academic year, women made up a record 59.5% of all undergrads, leaving men just 40.5%. (The Wall Street Journal)
- NH: In 2020 and 2021, colleges have been slammed by the pandemic. Because college attendance historically rises during recessions, initially there were high hopes that college attendance would improve during the crisis. The opposite actually happened. By the spring of 2021, attendance was down almost 4% (about 700K students) from the spring of 2019. The biggest declines occurred at two-year community colleges.
- This WSJ report highlights a noteworthy feature of this recent decline: Just over three-quarters of the missing students have been young men. The effect has been to widen still further the lead in young women over young men in college applications--now about 57% to 43% for the 2021-22 incoming class.
- After applying, women are more likely to enroll. What's more, the female gap over males grows over time after enrollment. That's because women are more engaged in college: they get better grades, win more honors, and participate more in extracurricular activities. They are also less likely to drop out and more likely to get a degree. In 2018, 65% of first-year frosh women got a BA after six years--versus 59% of first-year frosh men.
- Assuming this dropout differential continues, the female share of undergrads, which reached a record-high 59.5% in 2021, will probably exceed 61% by the time these undergrads are getting degrees. Among all adults ages 25 to 29 with BAs, the female share (now 54%) may hit 56%; and of those with MAs, the female share (now 58%) may hit 60%.
- The most interesting data angle investigated in the report is how the college gender gap is playing out be income and race (or ethnicity). Bottom line: The biggest emerging gender gap is among lower-income white youth. The following graphic breaks down college enrollment by income and race in the fall of 2019, before the pandemic. Presumably, the numbers would be even more dramatic if we could update them with 2021 data.
- Key points here. Enrollment rates correlate with income: For any given gender and race, enrollment is generally lowest for low-income families and highest for high-income families. No surprise here.
- But note also that white men in the lowest two income groups have the lowest enrollment rates of any race and are tied for lowest at higher income levels. For any race at any income, women almost always enroll at a higher rate than men, with the singular exception of high-income blacks. Asians have much higher enrollment rates than other races--in fact, the lowest-income Asian men enroll at a higher rate than the highest-income white men.
- And then there's this: Among low-income families, white women have the highest enrollment (except for Asian women)--opening up a gaping 23 percentage-point gender gap among low-income whites.
- What explains these patterns and trends? For the sudden drop in male enrollment during the pandemic, school career counselors point to several triggers. Many single moms were forced to quit their jobs or needed to stay home with younger children. To earn money and help out, many of their sons dropped out of college or delayed enrollment. Among Hispanics, especially, helping to support the family is regarded as the son's role. A further inducement: The pay offered for jobs in sales and serving tables has never been higher.
- Then there's the turnoff of "online instruction." Many studies have shown that boys are much more "distractible" than girls and thus require more social structure to stay focused and incentivized. It turns out that boys don't like online learning any more in college than they did in grade school. Many more men than women simply can't bring themselves to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to watch a lackluster Zoom lecture. Young women keep their eye on the degree. Men, apparently, need something more immersive to be engaged.
- To account for the longer-term trend, the WSJ authors fall back on more familiar story lines. One story is that many young men figure they can earn more money, be happier, and incur less debt by taking high-paying jobs in the skilled trades. Another is that young men are less focused on educational achievement for the same reason they are dropping out of the workforce: They feel that they don't fit in, that society doesn't expect much of them, and that in any case there aren't many jobs left for men in today's "pink-collar" economy. (See "The Missing Male Worker.")
- Still another story is that girls like going to school a lot more than boys because progressive educators discourage what boys are best at, like competing and taking risks. (See Christina Hoff Summer's best seller: The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men.) By the time they encounter woke college curricula, boys--especially low-income white boys--decide they just don't want any more. Soon, these critics imply, we could be looking at "the end of men": males as an impoverished and dependent underclass.
- All these stories have some merit. But it's important to keep them in proper perspective.
- To begin with, the feminization of college is not a new trend. In fact, nearly all of it occurred during the 1960s through the 1990s when Boomers and Xers were going to college. Not much has occurred on the Millennial watch--until the pandemic, apparently. The female share of undergrads rose from 37.6% in 1961 to 57.1% in 2003. And then only a bit more to 57.4% in 2019 (16 years later).
- These gains for women, moreover, have not come at the expense of men. Millennials of both genders are more college educated by their late 20s than Xers of either gender. First-wave Xer men, by their late 20s, actually marked a retrogression in college attainment from their first-wave Boomer predecessors. But Millennial men have surged ahead of Xer men in college completion. It's just that Millennial women have been gaining even faster.
- Finally, the growing advantage in college attainment has not (yet) put women's earnings on par with men's. Among Americans age 25 to 34, women have a BA advantage of at least 5 percentage points--and even bigger advantage for MAs and PhDs. But their median hourly earnings are still about 7 percent lower than men's.
- And that's putting the best face on it. Median weekly earnings for women relative to men drop about ten percentage points, because women are more likely to work part-time. And average weekly earnings are even lower relative to men's, because men earn a lot more at the highest income levels.
- Every study out there continues to say that lifetime earnings with a BA (in just about any field) are at least 100% higher on average than lifetime earnings with only a high school degree and at least 50% higher than with only an associate degree. So why don't these young women earn more?
- Overt gender discrimination by employers is one possibility. But many other plausible explanations are out there. One, to be sure, is the greater likelihood that women will dial back or leave their careers once they have children. For every cohort of women born over the last century, full-time employment peaks at a much younger age (typically in their late-20s) than for men. That's about the same age when women's earnings (relative to men's) peak.
- Another explanation is less discussed, but well documented: Women are more attracted to professions that deal with people rather than with things--and are not deterred by the fact that most of these professions pay less. If anything, this trend has strengthened in recent decades. (See "Why Are Occupations Still Segregated by Gender?") Also, within any given profession, women are less likely to seek out or negotiate for higher pay.
- This difference between boys and girls can already be observed in grade school. Paradoxically, while women are more driven than men to earn a college degree, they are less interested in the "earnings premium" that a college degree generates. Young men, by contrast, are much more focused on the earnings payoff whether or not they have a degree. This may help explain why men, even without a college degree, crowd so heavily into STEM careers, while women with a degree crowd much more into such fields as education, healthcare, human relations, and public relations.
- According to PayScale, the overall or "uncontrolled" median pay for women relative to men in 2021 is 82%. But when PayScale calculates median pay relative to men "when controlling for the same job and qualifications," it's 98%. Among young adults, Payscale explains, the difference in relative pay is almost entirely due to job choice. And the gap isn't simply driven by uncredentialed young women with no other job options. Even among men and women with BAs, the uncontrolled relative pay is 85% (while the "controlled" pay is 99%).
- There is something else going on as well. If it is true that, among everyone with a college degree, men are choosing higher-paying fields, it's probably even more true among everyone without a college degree. According to a New America study, men dominate noncollege workers in occupations like computers, military and police, transportation, science, and construction. Women dominate noncollege workers in healthcare, finance, education, social services, and admin support.
- Why is this significant? Because earnings in these male-dominated fields are so much higher. For example: In computers, among workers with only a noncollege certificate, 24% earn more than $75K; 13% less than $30K. In construction, installation, and repair, 13% earn more than $75K; 23% less than $30K.
- Now compare similarly credentialed workers in healthcare, where 5% earn more than $75K; 39% less than $30K. Or education and library, where 2% earn more than $75K; and 79% earn less than $30K.
- It's not just a lack of interest that keeps noncollege women out of these higher-paying occupations. Quite likely, it's also a lack of personal networks to draw women into these masculine work bastions, where employer size is often small and hirings and firings are informal. Similar barriers often face low-income non-white men. And this may explain their higher rates of college attendance.
- Here, then, is the broader truth behind the faster growth of college degrees among women than men. Men, especially white men, have a lot more opportunities to make a decent living without a college degree than women without a college degree. So the motive really is economic. Not in the sense that women in college competitively seek the highest-paying careers. Clearly they don't. But they do seek security.
- Many women figure it's either a college degree or poverty--especially if they find themselves alone with a family. Men don't face the same sort of choice. That keeps the young women showing up for class and making sure they get their diploma--even while the young men can afford to get sidetracked or distracted.
- To be sure, this is hardly an optimal outcome for most Millennials. Many young men are often choosing jobs with little earnings growth and limited long-term career potential. Many young women, recognizing this, are giving up on the prospect of finding a man who meets their own economic and status expectations. (See "Millennial Women Just Can't Find Enough Good Men.") But for now it seems to be the only outcome that works.
|To view and search all NewsWires, reports, videos, and podcasts, visit Demography World.
For help making full use of our archives, see this short tutorial.