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Missing: Males on college campuses

By Wendy McElroy
web posted June 20, 2005

Some researchers call them the "Lost Boys." They are the students you don't see on college campuses.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) tracks the enrollment in all degree-granting institutions by sex. From 1992 to 2000, the ratio of enrolled males to females fell from 82 to 78 boys for every 100 girls. The NCES projects that in 2007 the ratio will be 75 males for every 100 females; in 2012, 74 per 100.

In short, your son is statistically more likely than your daughter to work a blue collar job.

Thomas Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, argues that leaving a generation of boys behind hurts women as well. In a Business Week cover story, Mortenson observed, "My belief is that until women decide that the education of boys is a serious issue, nothing is going to happen."

He believes some women feel threatened by even admitting the problem because "it will take away from the progress of women...What everyone needs to realize is that if boys continue to slide, women will lose too."

That realization still seems distant among educational experts, who continue to downplay the NCES statistic as well as other data that indicate schools are hurting boys.

Jacqueline King — author of the influential study "Gender Equity in Higher Education: Are Male Students at a Disadvantage?"— is an example. She found that 68 percent of college enrollees from low-income families were female; only 31 percent were male.

Yet King insists there is no "boy crisis" in education despite the fact that data from Upward Bound and Talent Search show a comparable gender gap. (These college-preparation programs operate in high schools and received $312.6 million $144.9 million in tax funding, respectively, in 2005.) Of the students who receive benefits from those college-preparation programs, approximately 61 percent are girls; 39 percent are boys.

King's quoted explanation of the gender gaps: "women make up a disproportionate share of low-income students" who go on to college. Since low-income families presumably give birth to boys in the same ratio as the general population— worldwide the ratio is between 103 to 107 boys for every 100 girls — why are so few boys applying for assistance? A higher drop-out rate might be partly responsible, or boys may have no interest in higher education.

King comments on the latter explanation: "male low-income students have some ability in this strong economy to make a decent living with just a high-school diploma." In particular, she points to the construction industry.

King may be correct. The fact that low-income boys gravitate toward manual labor may account for some of the educational gender disparity. What is striking, however, is her apparent dismissal of that disparity as important. She seems to accept the reality that far fewer men than women enroll in college and that poor boys enter "the trades" while poor girls become professionals.

Imagine the gender ratio being reversed, with 78 girls for every 100 boys entering college. Imagine a generation of poor girls being relegated to low social status labor while tax funding assists poor boys. It is difficult to believe King would be similarly unconcerned.

Nevertheless, merely by acknowledging the situation, King shows far more balance than prominent voices, like the American Association of University Women, which still maintains there is a "girl crisis."

Fortunately, researchers like Judith Kleinfeld of the University of Alaska see that boys are in distress.

Kleinfeld — author of "The Myth That Schools Shortchange Girls" — states, "In my own college classes, I see a sea change in the behavior of young men. In the 1980s, the young men talked in my classes about the same as young women. I know because each semester I measured male and female talk. Now so many young men are disengaged that the more articulate, ambitious women dominate the classroom ....and my office hours."

Kleinfeld tried to trace the problem backward by interviewing high school students on plans for their future. She states, "The young women almost always have a clear, realistic plan—-go to college, have a career, often directed toward an idealistic goals about improving the environment."

This clarity of vision and was generally absent in young men.

Among those who acknowledge the "boy crisis," explanations are vary and may all be true. Some point to the "feminization" of education over the last decade, which occurred largely in response to a perceived need to encourage girls. But, if boys and girls learn differently, then the changes may be placing boys at a disadvantage.

Others point to explicitly anti-male attitudes — that is, political correctness — within education. The website Illinois Loop lists "22 School Practices That May Harm Boys." One of them: "'Modern' textbooks and recommended literature often go to extremes to remove male role models as lead characters and examples."

Kleinfeld points speculatively to the impact of increased divorce and fatherless homes on the self-image of boys who lack a positive male role-model.

Approximately 40 percent of American children now live in homes without their own biological father.

Ultimately, explanations of and solutions to the "boy crisis" will come from exploring a combination of factors. My solution: privatize education and place it under the control of parents or adult students.

The first step to any solution, however, is to acknowledge there is a problem. We are not quite there yet.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.


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