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The Incredibly Shrinking American Male

What do education trends say about the changing role of men in U.S. society?

September 3, 2002

What do education trends say about the changing role of men in U.S. society?

It almost reads like a bad guy joke: All the evidence shows that the lifetime earnings of college graduates soar above the earnings of high school graduates — and that those soar over the earnings of drop-outs.

Yet, U.S. males are choosing to stay away from higher education in droves.

In 2000, the year the U.S. Department of Education compiled its last education statistics, 2.8 million U.S. youngsters graduated from high school.

An impressive — by international standards — 1.7 million of them went on to college.

But of those, only 749,000 — 42% — were men.

Only two generations after they entered the U.S. labor market, women may rub their hands in glee that they account for half of the country's business and math degrees — and a third of the degrees in architecture and physical science.

But the education statistics could be a canary-in-the-mine-shaft indicator of a larger trend that should leave no one gleeful. What makes the declining participation of U.S. men in education so stunning is that it is taking place among all races.

It is also happening at all family income levels, in every state, among both public and private colleges, for every field of study — and for every kind of degree.

Thomas G. Mortenson — a senior scholar at Washington's Center for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education — is the man most responsible for sounding the alarm on the growing withdrawal of men from higher education in the United States.

The reason for his concern is that the change happened so fast. In 1970, 60% of all U.S. bachelor's degrees went to men. But by 1982, a mere 12 years later, the tables had turned. For the first time, U.S. women were receiving the majority of degrees.

Not only are U.S. men getting fewer degrees these days, but the types of degrees are changing, too. Between 1977 and 1996, the percentage of degrees awarded to men in agriculture fell from 96% to 63%.

In business, the drop was from 91% to 51% and in biology, from 70% to 47%. Even in that toughest field of all — engineering — women are on the move, taking 15% of the degrees, up from just 1.4% in 1970.

Women now also receive 60% of all master's degrees, up from 47% in 1970.

At the other end of the degree ladder, women account for 57% of the associate degrees, up from 40%.

By 2008, the U.S. Department of Education predicts that men will receive just 41.7% of undergraduate degrees.

At that rate, Mr. Mortenson concludes that the last male to receive a BA will pick it up in 2067 — a fancifully impossible prediction, but an unsettling one all the same.

So, what about Scholastic Aptitude Test scores that were released in late August 2002? They would seem to offer hope. In math, men again outscored women — this time by 34 points on the 800-point exam.

But the facts can be misleading. The huge gap isn’t because men are that much better at math, although they do tend to take slightly more math courses than women do.

The bigger reason for the gap, says the College Board, the non-profit that owns the test, is simple. More women take the test.

Minority women and women in the first generation of their family to go to college — as well as women who have low grade-point averages — are all more likely to take the test than are men with similar characteristics.

With more women dreaming of a college education, they lower the average women’s test score. The reason men score higher is not really because they know more — it is due to the low number of men taking the test.

With fewer men even aspiring to a college education, all this is making for some new dynamics on campus.

Many U.S. colleges and universities now give extra admissions points to men in an effort to bump up their male enrollment. Among other things, women complain about the paucity of men available to date and alumni grumble at the quality of sports teams.

Men's alienation does not begin at the campus gate, of course. Boys drop out of high school and are suspended.

They are either held back a year, or shuffled off to special education classes far more often than girls are.

That has led some educators to fret that schools in the United States are unfriendly places for boys, dominated as they are by female teachers and administrators — and far more attuned to the personalities, learning styles and habits of girls.

Girls generally are focused, comfortable asking for help, willing to follow up on guidance, sociable and easy to work with in groups — all the ingredients of a good, easy-to-teach student.

Who wouldn't prefer these students over a bunch of guys who sleep late, forget to bring their books to class, never quite fulfill their assignments, pale at the idea of asking directions and are focused only on the Friday-night party and the Saturday game?

What makes women good students also appears to make them better suited for the changing world economy.

The days of muscle and brawn, of clearing the wilderness, hand-stoking blast furnaces and pouring steel are over.

The U.S. labor force has shifted from a goods-producing economy that favored men, to a service economy that favors women. This economy puts a premium on communication, teamwork, networking and cooperation, in which more women excel.

Men's share of college degrees is declining. But so is men's participation in the labor force, in government, in civic life, in the voting booth — and in the family.

The world is changing in ways that favor women: Globalization and urbanization appear to help women more than they do men.

Men not only compete less successfully than women, in education at least, they are abandoning the race before the starting gun is even loaded.

What does all this mean to our societal future? Fewer men will be available for skilled jobs.

That could be especially true when the echo-boomers — babies born to the original baby boomers — advance through school and enrollments finally begin to decline.

A shortage could create incentives that would entice more men to attend college — although economic inducements do not seem to be working today.

After all, the rate of return on a degree for a man is far higher than it is for a woman (although part of the reason for that is that so many women enter lower-paid fields like education and healthcare).

It could mean an even greater disparity in incomes as educated husbands and their educated wives pull further ahead of households headed by unskilled men and those headed by a lone woman, educated or otherwise.

It certainly will mean that a college-educated woman's chances of finding a college-educated man to marry are fewer.

That is a societal dimension that African American women in the United States already know all too well.

And on the even-uglier side, Mr. Mortenson worries that the withdrawal of men — not just from college, but from society in general — could mean an increase in male aggression, crime and imprisonment.

As the mother of two sons, I unquestioningly assume both will graduate from high school, attend college and probably continue on for advanced degrees. The only question is who will pay for graduate school, as the trend among men to shun higher education leaves me fairly sanguine.

After all, when the time comes for my kids to graduate high school, they should have their picks of colleges, jobs and accomplished wives. I should not worry. Yet, something is out of balance here, so I do.