Pell's $6 Billion Dollar Gender Gap

March 29, 2020

Updated May 2021

Federal Pell Grants are the largest source of federal funds (free money) when it comes to paying for college. Established in 1972, Pell Grants served as a gateway to college financing, and Pell funding still remains a central form of funding for many students today. According to Nerdwallet, “more than half of U.S. high school graduates who applied to college were eligible for a Pell Grant.”

The group to benefit most from The Federal Pell Grant system has been our daughters. Pell spends over $6 billion more per year educating our daughters than it does educating our sons and there are several reasons.

  • Pell awards a higher percentage of grants to females than males. (Males are disproportionately underfunded by the Pell system.)

  • Pell does not award Pell Grants to males who have not registered for Selective Service, a male only criterion.

  • Pell awards more grants to females because more of our daughters attend college.

  • Pell does not award grants for many trade programs.

It’s important to understand how the above distinctions perpetuate the college gender gap and the pathways to careers for our nation's sons. In the 2011-12 academic year, women received over $6 billion more in Pell Grant funding than men, and women who applied were more likely to receive a grant than men. According to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, 44.8% of women and 36.5% of men in undergraduate programs received Pell Grants in the 2011-12 academic year; a difference of 8.3% that provided more females, particularly females from lower incomes brackets, with more opportunities to attend college than males from lower income brackets [1].

When Pell Grant funding dropped in 2016, funding for males dropped from 36.5% to 34%, a decrease of 2.5 percent. Women receiving Pell Grants dropped from 44.8% to 43.1%, a drop of 1.7%.

Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics reveals that the Pell Grant Gender Gap increased from 8.3% to 9.1% as men fell further behind women in Pell Grant funding and college attendance. Even though men slightly outnumber women in the general population aged 20-39, [2] the most likely ages when people are earning college degrees, women dominate the college landscape and its funding.

The Selective Service Barrier

Men face another barrier when it comes to grants, loans, work study programs, and other programs and careers that involve government. According to a USA Today report, male “students have been denied aid because they failed to register with Selective Service before their 26th birthday.” A male cannot receive a Pell Grant if he does not register for the draft.

The requirement only impacts males who already face greater barriers to college than females who attend, graduate, and are funded in significantly higher numbers than male students. The boys who suffer most are those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, families new to higher education, and boys in displaced families; all are contributing factors to the lower number of high school males applying to college.

The 2020 Federal Student Aid Handbook makes it clear that males must register with Selective Service in order to receive federal student aid. There are some exemptions, one which includes “males currently in the armed services and on active duty. (This exception does not apply to members of the Reserve and National Guard who are not on active duty"). Some might argue that the college gender gap is a product of more boys entering trades. However, the 2 million more women in undergraduate programs per year and the deep resources, including Pell's 6-Billion-Dollar Gender Gap, does not account for the millions of sons in need of careers; what Dr. Warren Farrell called the “purpose void” in his most recent book, The Boy Crisis. This realization does not mean we should abandon programs for our daughters. It does mean we need to look more closely at the current state and future prospects of our sons with the same urgency we fund our daughters programs.

The Pell Grant Focus and Its Limits

Pell Grants, for instance, have a limited scope when it comes to aiding our sons. According to a 2019 Washington Post article, “students are currently prohibited from using [Pell] grant money to pay for academic programs that are shorter than 15 weeks or have fewer than 600 hours of instruction time.”

Certain professions, such as trucking, last under 10 weeks. Ninety percent of truck drivers are male. Comparatively, women account for over 90% of all nurses and can become registered nurses in a two-year community college program. The median truck driver’s salary is $43,680 and the median nurse’s salary is $71,730. Nursing is a more intensive, longer lasting, and a more lucrative program that often includes strong benefits. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, state funded grants, nursing scholarship programs, loan repayment programs, and others resources provide access to a high paying career. These programs are important to meet the demands of the health care profession that overwhelmingly markets and supports women.

College programs that lead to professions where men are under-funded or under-represented need serious attention as well. According to the bureau of labor statistics, men are grossly under-represented in elementary and middle school education, nursing, paralegals/legal assistants, and dental hygienists. These professions result in employment above national wage averages and pay higher wages than truck drivers, construction workers, and electricians; fields represented heavily by men and fields that experience higher instances of injury and fatality.

Financial commitments need to happen in the trade fields too, as opportunities for young men continue to trend downward. (In a 2014 PolitiFact check, median full-time-salaries of single-motherless women in their twenties in America's metropolitan areas are 8 percent to as much as 20 percent higher than single-fatherless men in their twenties. This trend is directly correlative to college graduation rates.)

The Vocation School Paradox

In March, the “Education Department asked Congress for $1.3 billion to fund vocational education in high schools, trade schools and community colleges.” Those programs include males and females with a cultural push to employ more women in traditionally male trades [3]. While fewer males enter colleges than females and receive less aid to attend college, a simultaneous political narrative and financial mechanism for more women in male dominated trades only widens the male-gender-gap and further displaces our nation's sons.

Pell's 6-Billion Dollar Gender Gap alone is more than 4 ½ times larger than the entire proposed budget for trade and vocational training. Although colleges are more expensive than trade schools, much of our social narrative surrounding education and career supports women more so than men. This narrative happens at the federal level in many ways.

  • Pell Grants overwhelmingly support the advancement of women.

  • Much of the gender equity reporting acknowledges male dominated fields that needs female inclusion, but reports do not equally emphasize female dominated professions in need of more male inclusion [4]. This emphasis promotes a partial narrative that impacts men, women, and families.

  • The U.S. Department of Labor has a Women’s Bureau (WANTO) but no comparable men’s bureau.

These types of approaches create zero-sum game analysis instead of opening up the conversation to the promising futures of our daughters and alarming challenges of our sons. Our daughters continue to enter the workforce in places traditionally held by men, but no comparable steps are being made to place men in traditional professions held by women.

Finding Solutions

The Pell Grant system and its funding symbolize the aggressive cultural shift leaving our sons void of purpose and desperately in need of solutions. One equitable solution would be to increase the percentage of males receiving Pell Grants to even out the percentage difference. A second would be to open Pell Grant funding to trades, traditionally uncovered by grants, that lead to careers and employment. A third would be to increases the number of men in certain professions such as elementary education, nursing, physician assistant programs, and other traditional female occupations as women continue to gain access into non-traditional occupations.


[1] Data from the U.S. Department of Education, Trends in Pell Grant Receipt and the Characteristics of Pell Grant Recipients: Selected Years, 2003–04 to 2015–16

[2] 2010 United States Census Bureau

[3] In 2019, the WANTO grant program awarded $1,492,515 to three community-based organizations to increase women's employment in apprenticeship programs and nontraditional occupations.

[4] Gender Equity in Education, U.S. Department of Education

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