Why Are Men Disappearing From Colleges?

Around the turn of the century (1900, that is, not 2000), the percentages of men and women attending college was roughly equal. Granted, the educations they received were anything but equal: most of the men were getting bachelor’s degrees at four year colleges, many of which were all male (including the Ivy League), while many female students were attending two year teacher colleges – teaching was one of the few professions open to women at the time.

Around 25% of college women in 1900 went to all-female schools like the members of the Seven Sisters (e.g., Smith College and Vassar College). At one point, there were more than 250 women’s colleges in the United States. Gradually, both all-male and all-female schools became co-ed. As of 2021, there were around 35 all-female colleges in the United States and only three all-male colleges.

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In addition to the well-known transition of colleges from being single-gendered to co-ed over the last century or so, another macrotrend in American post-secondary education has been the recent closing or consolidation of hundreds of American colleges, especially since the financial crisis of 2008. Over the past 5 to 6 years, American colleges have lost around 1.5 million students – and men accounted for 71% of this loss.

Today, nearly 60% of the 17 million college students in the United States are women. That includes the fewer than 10% of students that go to elite schools like the Ivy League universities, the 25% that attend community colleges or other two-year schools, the 10% that go to for-profit schools, and the rest (the majority) that attend mid-tier public or private schools.

There has been a tremendous shift in the demographics of college enrollment over the past 70+ years. After World War II, many American soldiers returned home and used the G.I. Bill to attend college. At one time, male college students outnumbered female college students 2 to 1. Overtime, however, that heavy male bias has eroded, then flattened, then flipped entirely. Soon, twice as many women will be graduating from college as men.

So what is behind this trend? Why is the percentage of male college students dwindling? Some chalk it up to a simple cost-benefit analysis done by both men and women when considering college. It could be that women just have more to gain than men by attending college. For example, men that do not attend college can often get relatively high-paying jobs in fields like construction or other trades. Women who do not attend college, on the other hand, often take relatively low paying, low skill jobs in fields like retail.

Others believe that boys are simply being left behind, and that the trend of low achievement among boys begins much sooner – in grade school rather than in college. Dr. Amalia Miller, Professor of Economics and Graduate Studies Director at the University of Virginia, notes that “behavior that for boys is socially rewarded doesn’t fit well with good student behavior.” Essentially, boys more than girls are often encouraged to be playful and active, but those are not typically desired traits in the traditional school setting in which a teacher instructs at the front of the classroom and students are expected to sit quietly and pay attention.

Many behavioralists (not to mention many parents) have posited that boys tend to naturally be more active than girls and find it harder to sit still. This may explain the fact that boys are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) approximately three times as often as girls. Or the discrepancy in diagnosis rate may simply be due to underdiagnosis in girls, because girls with ADHD tend to exhibit signs of inattentiveness, whereas boys tend to be impulsive and hyperactive.

Either way, students are much more likely to be removed from class and disciplined because they are being hyperactive than if they are being inattentive. This can lead to apathy toward school for many boys, which contributes to a downward spiral of poor performance beginning in the earliest years of school and ending with decreased college enrollment.

Why else might men be opting not to attend college?

Some may simply be deterred by the sticker shock of a $200,000+ degree and decide that they would rather spend four years working and making money. But this does not explain the discrepancy between men and women, as the price of college for both are the same.

Some men may simply be opting to take certification programs that are relevant to the field they’re interested in and that allow them to skip college. For instance, Google offers certification programs in Data Analytics and UX Design, among others.

Most economists agree that a college education is perhaps the single best long-run investment a person could make. A person with a college degree is more likely to have a job and on average earns more each year and in total over the course of their career. However, as a teenager with little life experience, it can be difficult to appreciate the big picture, especially when they can see that around 40% of recent college graduates now are technically underemployed, meaning they have a job for which a degree is not required – and thus most likely pays less.

Finally, many men who have opted to forego college may simply not feel welcome in a higher education environment. For example, according to The Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology (CSPI), 66% of students in higher education say they self-censor what they say for fear of being singled out as intolerant or politically incorrect. CSPI research also showed that more than 80% of PhD students were “willing to discriminate against right leaning scholars.” In an increasingly politically divided nation, it makes sense that some would rather just avoid college altogether than be faced with views they do not themselves hold.

The decrease in the percentage of men attending college will be an overall loss for both society and the economy. While Thomas Jefferson never actually said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people,” it does capture the spirit and intent of his views toward education. Democracy cannot survive with an uninformed electorate, and people cannot survive and flourish when they are underutilized and underappreciated.

Over the past two decades, deaths of despair (deaths caused by drug overdoses, suicide, and alcoholic liver disease) have increased dramatically. In fact, deaths from these causes have increased between 56% and 387%, depending on the age cohort, for an average of 70,000 per year. And vastly more men are dying than women. This ranges from the low end (ages 45-64), in which 3.1 men die for every woman from these three causes, to the high end (ages 75+), in which 9.3 men die for every woman from these causes.

Of course, not all of these deaths, nor the discrepancy in rates between men and women, can be attributed to a lack of education leading to a lack of opportunities. But it is certainly a factor, and action will need to be taken on many fronts to reverse this trend for the benefit of society and the economy as well.

And make no mistake, the economy is taking a hit. A 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that the treatment of these disorders and the loss of productivity they cause cost the economy $400 billion per year. Another report from the Recovery Centers of America estimates the cost to be far higher, at $3.73 trillion annually in economic loss, loss of productivity, and societal harm.

While the numbers are staggering, much can be done to change them – but the solutions are not easy. The primary and secondary educational system will need to be rethought and adjusted so that it caters to students of all types. The costs of college will need to be reduced as well. They have been increasing much more quickly than wages and inflation for a very long time. And colleges will need to become more accepting of all voices and opinions, and disagreement and differences of opinion will need to be more readily tolerated and embraced.

It is certainly a tall order. But as the saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”