Higher Ed Quandary: Women Lean In; Men Tune Out

By EMILY JASHINSKY | Aug. 18, 2014

The success of women in education is cause for celebration. In the early 20th century, four out of five bachelor’s degrees were awarded to men. That’s an incredible amount of ground to make up, but women in Wisconsin and across the United States rose to the occasion.

Since the early 1980s, women have earned more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men. By 2024, women are projected to earn nearly 60% of bachelor’s degrees conferred nationally. In Wisconsin, women earned 55% of bachelor’s degrees across the University of Wisconsin System in 2013. They earned more associate, master’s and doctoral degrees as well.

While the nation’s coterie of feminist thinkers has been busy working to dissolve the alleged patriarchal system of discrimination against females, American women have been leaning into higher education with impressive vigor. But for all the rhetoric from women’s groups about fairness and equality, you wonder if they’re missing one particularly disturbing trend in gender parity: higher education’s matriarchy.

Sure, more university presidents are still male. But men are so outnumbered among students on our nation’s campuses that it’s worth considering who really controls the dynamics of day-to-day life.

While activists and politicians have spent the past 50 years rightfully focused on girls in education, we’ve lost ground with many of our boys. From 2008 to 2013, on average, just over half of all Wisconsin boys graduating high school enrolled in a four-year institution. There’s nearly a 15-point gap between our state’s boys and girls graduating high school who say they intend to go to a four-year college. In the early ’70s, a larger percentage of newly graduated boys than girls were enrolling in postsecondary courses. By 2006, this gap favored girls by 10 percentage points.

As we know, the labor market now rewards college graduates in a way it did not in the 1970s. The U.S. Census Bureau found that, over the course of a 40-year career, a worker with at least a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn $790,000 more than a worker with only a high school diploma. In Wisconsin, a male with a bachelor’s degree averages nearly $55,000 a year while a male high school graduate earns $34,000. In other words, that college degree translates to an extra $21,000 a year.

Economist Tyler Cowen, who has written extensively on the new economy, says, “Labor markets just aren’t as flexible these days for workers, especially for men at the bottom end of the skills distribution.” Cowen contrasts job opportunities of the past with those of the future, noting that technology is increasingly less reliant on manual labor. He concludes: “All of these developments mean a disadvantage for people who don’t like formal education, even if they are otherwise very talented. It’s no surprise that current unemployment has been concentrated among those with lower education levels.”

Poorly educated young men could create serious problems — both economic and social — for this country down the road. Experts say women will have a more difficult time finding partners with similar levels of education and earnings, which, in turn, could cause the marriage rate to decline and could eventually impact diverse sectors of the economy like the housing market.

This isn’t to suggest that college is the right option for every young man in Wisconsin. There are certainly ways to enjoy a successful and fulfilling career without a bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, however, as Cowen indicates, jobs that involve manual labor are declining overall. The American male must adapt accordingly.

Scholars suggest a variety of explanations for this growing gender gap in our nation’s colleges. The problem begins in elementary school. Recess time has been reduced. Competitive games (like dodgeball) have been cut in the name of political correctness. Feelings-based learning is creeping into lesson plans across the country. As a result, it’s possible that boys develop an apathy toward education as early as elementary school and never really recover.

If these numbers were reversed and men were outperforming women, I suspect the powerful women’s lobby would lead a national charge to achieve parity, rescue our undereducated class of oppressed females, and dismantle the patriarchy of higher education. On her website, U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) claims to be a “champion of advancing gender equality.” Does that apply only to women?

Any American with an interest in the success of one sex should be interested in the success of both. Maybe it’s time to accept the remarkable achievements of women in education, to acknowledge that the ripples of second-wave feminism continue to produce millions of educated and empowered women every year, and to have faith in the strength of our mothers and daughters.

Maybe it’s OK to give the boys some attention, too.

Emily Jashinsky of Delafield attends George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is an intern at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. This column reflects her personal opinion.