Alarming Trends in Male College Outcomes

By Brenda Werner, PhD
Graduate Education Chair, University of Mary

In North Dakota, as in other rural states, there is a severe shortage of math and science teachers. As a university education professor, I recently applied for a grant to support preparing education students to teach math and science in high-needs schools. One criteria I was asked to address on the application form was how to draw females more effectively into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field. Often, grant money goes to programs designed to give girls a leg up. But the notion that girls underperform and are underrepresented at college and in careers has been outdated for decades. Except for a relatively few technical fields, the data shows strongly that since the early 1970s, young men have been on an alarming downward trend regarding academic performance—which, as the mother of two sons in college, I find especially distressing. Largely ignored in higher education and the media is the glaring fact that male students are falling miserably behind their female peers.

The predominance of men in higher education had been true since Harvard University, the nation-to-be’s first college, was founded in 1636. Prior to the Civil War, few post-secondary institutions accepted women. Notable exceptions included Hillsdale College, founded in 1844 in Spring Arbor, Michigan. Profound social changes over the next century eliminated one barrier after another for women. In 1945, for example, Harvard Medical School admitted females for the first time. Between 1895 and 1925, 43 Catholic colleges for women were established and this increased to 116 by 1955. Then as the number of Catholic colleges for women approached the number of men’s colleges (by 1970), Catholic colleges and universities were beginning to become co-educational institutions, which almost all are today.

In 1960, the gap between males and females attending and graduating from university nationwide was still substantial. This gap provides an important part of the context for the film “Where the Boys Are,” released that year. The fictional movie is set in Fort Lauderdale, where the female college students seek mates—and most desirably, an MRS degree—among an abundance of college boys on spring break. At the time, 54 percent of male high school graduates went to college compared to just 37 percent of females. Also, dropout rates were higher for women. Men earned 64.7 percent of bachelor’s degrees.

Where the Girls Are

From 1960 to 1980, the percentage of high school graduates going to college increased as the nation’s population grew. However, the proportion of females attending college increased much faster. By 1980, female enrollment drew almost even with men’s, and the next year women earned 50.3 percent of bachelor’s degrees. Women currently earn 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees.

This phenomenon is also true in North Dakota’s public and private four-year colleges and universities. Among public universities, women currently earn 56.5 percent of bachelor’s degrees. At the University of Mary, female students earn 67 percent of undergraduate degrees. Female enrollment at the University of Mary has always been higher because it was founded as an all-female college built on nursing and education programs. Despite becoming coeducational in 1961 and expanding to 54 undergraduate majors and 17 graduate degrees over the past half-century, nursing and education majors still comprise almost a quarter of the students. Seventy-two percent of education students are female and 91 percent of nursing students are female.

Girls and women are the privileged sex in education. From preschool to graduate school, and across ethic and class lines, women get better grades, they win most of the honors and prizes, and they’re far more likely to go to college.

Christina Hoff Sommers

An education system failing a generation of boys is going to produce unprecedented human misery for children, for women and for the men themselves. Are we women enough to do something about it?

Maggie Gallagher

College Enrollment

In 1960, 756,000 males graduated from high school and 54 percent of these went on to college. The number of male high school graduates increased to 1.4 million in 2014, but only 48 percent attended college. This 11-percent decrease shows that the gap reversal is not simply because more females are attending college today. Among 1.45 million female high school graduates in 2014, 53 percent were college bound. That’s 10 percent more than boys and an increase of more than 15 percent since 1960, when 38 percent of female high school grads went on to college.

Recently, policymakers took notice when enrollment at American colleges and universities declined for the fourth straight year. Enrollment at degree-granting, post-secondary institutions peaked at 21 million students in 2010, but by 2015 there were more than 1 million fewer students—the steepest decline in half a century, despite the large number of initiatives aimed at increasing the number of Americans earning college degrees.

The two factors most often cited for low college graduation rates and falling enrollment are high costs and low college readiness skills. While these factors are important, Suzanne Fields, columnist for the Washington Times, mused that as educators and policy makers anguish over how to increase the number of Americans earning college degrees, they are missing the elephant in the room. “Little attention is given to the quantitatively vastly more important reason why the proportion of Americans with degrees is not growing faster: the substantial underrepresentation of men on college campuses.”

Perhaps because of fear of being perceived as sexist or narrowly focusing on race and socioeconomic status, policy makers are ignoring the impact of declining academic performance among young males.

“If males graduated from college in the same proportion as women,” noted Fields, “there would be about 14 percent more college graduates each year—over 2 million more over a decade.”

Early Predictors, Later Results

Male underperformance begins as early as preschool when boys naturally lag behind in language development, which is reflected in reading scores. There is a biological basis in brain development that enables girls to process language with greater facility through childhood and adolescence. But boys catch up by the time they enter college—unless they have become disengaged from education.

Normally boys should still be able to read on grade level, but if not by 3rd grade, the likelihood of graduating high school by age 19 is four times less, according to a Hunter College study. Unfortunately, boys are falling further behind, rather than catching up throughout elementary, middle and high school. Reading woes affect performance in many other academic areas since learning often depends on reading proficiency.

While boys dominated in math and science for centuries, girls seem to be taking over. At the high school level, girls are now more likely to take Advanced Placement classes in every subject area except physics. Dr. Michael Thompson, author of the book Raising Cain, notes that while girls now outperform boys at every level through graduate school, boys are far are more likely to be involved in disciplinary procedures, more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities, more likely to be medicated for Attention Deficit Disorder, and more likely to drop out of high school and college.

After high school, a lower percentage of men go to college, a higher percentage dropout and fewer earn bachelor’s degrees. Sadly, it’s no better elsewhere in higher education. Men earn less than 38 percent of associate’s degrees, 40 percent of master’s degrees and 48 percent of doctorates.

“Officials … are helplessly watching as their campuses become like retirement villages,” wrote author Christina Hoff Sommers in The Atlantic in 2013, “with a surfeit of women competing for a handful of surviving men.”

If the movie cited above were remade today, the title would have to be changed from “Where the Boys Are” to “Where Are the Boys?”

Three years after starring in "Where the Boys Are," Dolores Hart (far left) entered the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT. Since 1970, Mother Dolores Hart, OSB, has served as the Abbey's Dean of Education. In 2012, HBO released an Oscar-nominated documentary about her life, titled "God is the Bigger Elvis." She had made her screen debut in 1975 as Elvis Presley's sweetheart in "Loving You."

Three years after starring in “Where the Boys Are,” Dolores Hart (far left) entered the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT. Since 1970, Mother Dolores Hart, OSB, has served as the Abbey’s Dean of Education. In 2012, HBO released an Oscar-nominated documentary about her life, titled “God is the Bigger Elvis.” She had made her screen debut in 1975 as Elvis Presley’s sweetheart in “Loving You.”

Men at Work?

If men aren’t in college, they must be working, right? Surprisingly, no. While the labor force participation rate for females 20 to 24 years of age has declined by only 4 percent from 1980 to 2013, the rate for men has fallen by 14 percent. For men in their prime working years (25 to 54 years of age), the workforce participation rate “has been falling for more than 60 years and today stands at 88 percent.”

In 1964, workforce participation rates for prime-age males with different educational levels were within 1 percentage point: 98 percent with a college education and 97 percent with a high school degree or less. By 2015, these rates declined for all education groups and most dramatically for men with less education, as shown below.

YearLess than high school diplomaHigh school graduatesSome collegeAssociate's DegreeBachelor's Degree

In total, 23 percent of prime-aged Americans (male and female)—almost 30 million people—are not employed now. Of these, three out of four have given up even looking for a job. There are now what has been coined “ghost legions” of men—7 million strong (or weak)—who do almost nothing. They spend as much time watching TV or surfing the Internet as working men spend at their jobs.

In a recent report, “The Long-term Decline in Prime-Age Male Labor Force Participation,” the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers concluded:

This long-term trend is worrisome, since it indicates that American men between the ages of 25 and 54 are increasingly disconnected from the labor market, lowering potential gains in productivity and economic growth. Although many higher-income economies have also experienced long-term declines in prime-age male labor force participation, the decline in the United States has been noticeably steeper, leaving our labor market—a crucial engine of growth—operating below its potential.

It should also be noted that males are also more likely to be imprisoned. The Federal Bureau of Prisoners reported that in 2016, males made up 93.3 percent of the prison population in contrast to 6.7 percent for females. Male predominance in jail has always been true since men are naturally more aggressive. However, there has been a massive increase in male incarceration rates.  In 1960, there were 725 male inmates per 100,000 residents in the U.S.  By 2014, that number jumped to over 2,200 per 100,000 residents. There are currently over 2 million men held in custody in state and federal prisons and in local jails. Another 4.3 million men are on probation and parole.

Graph depicting the data from National Center of Education Statistics showing the total number of Americans earning their Bachelor's degree from 1960-2026

Where the Boys Will Be

Nationwide, the preponderance of females earning bachelor’s degrees is projected to continue increasing to more than 58 percent by 2026—unless colleges and universities find ways to attract and retain male students.

One obvious point is that science and technology programs have always attracted male students. In response to the need throughout North Dakota and beyond for engineers, the University of Mary initiated an engineering program in September 2016 in partnership with the University of North Dakota. One likely side benefit of this program will be an increase in male students at the University of Mary.

In future issues of 360 Review, I will report on the causes of and solutions to the problems challenging male students in K-12 and post-secondary education. There are promising innovations in Australia, Canada and the U.K., as well as in the U.S., to investigate.