The Gender Gap & College

by Sean Kullman

February 8, 2020

In June of 2016, I attended a Moving Up Ceremony at my son's local K-8 parochial school. The spectacle is truly magnificent. Hundreds of children, sitting in their assigned church pews by grade level, prepare to move from one area of the church to another. The ritual is a symbolic and physical act of their success and a mental preparation for the upcoming year when they will forge ahead to new and exciting possibilities. One by one each grade level is called, stands up, and moves to their newly assigned seats; receiving applause from the entire student body, faculty, staff, parents, and grandparents. The Moving Up Ceremony is also a time to reward students for their hard work. Students receive academic awards and one of the highlights of the ceremony, the Love of Learning Award. It’s not the same as the academic awards conferred to students in higher grades. The Love of Learning Award is based on a child’s enthusiasm to learn. One child from each grade level receives this award. A child’s name is called and the child is recognized at the altar of the church for this achievement with the other recipients. By the time the last recipient was called, it was clear that girls loved to learn and boys did not love to learn. The altar was a sea of girls. The boys stared on. The Love of Learning is a feel good award. One where a boy and girl from each class can easily be identified. It was clear teachers did not confer with each other or no-one picked up on the obvious visual. When I brought this to the principle’s attention, she had already recognized the importance of this moment before the words barely left my mouth. Understood there is easily a boy and a girl in each grade level who loves to learn. She knows messaging and symbolism are powerful tools.

The episode is not an indictment of the teachers' lack of love for boys, but a product of an unconscious discourse shaping schools across the country as national educational initiatives easily overlook boys.

The Gender Gap and College by Sean Kullman

The rise of women’s education in the United States may be the most unprecedented in history according to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). Women are earning more degrees at every level of the academic ladder than at any time in history and they have been for several decades. At no point has one gender outpaced the other by so significant a number in higher education in the United States.

Since 2000, women have accounted for 9,715,826 more conferred degrees than men even though men slightly outnumber women in the general population at ages when people are most likely to attend college [1]. According to NCES women accounted for 660,000 more degrees than men in the 2016-17 academic year alone. This data includes earned associate, bachelor, master, and doctoral degrees. Women earn more degrees than men in all four categories; associate (62%); bachelor (57%); master (60%); and doctoral (52%). Although percentages provide an overview of the college gender-gap, true numbers provide something more telling.

Bachelor degrees remain the most commonly earned college degree. When singling out undergraduate programs, the results are equally telling. Since 2003, women have outnumbered men in undergraduate fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions by 2 million or more each year. From 1988 to 2002, women outnumbered men by 1 to 1.8 million each year (NCES Table 303.70).

Updated on June 22, 2021 to highlight the Male Gender-Gap in Post-Secondary Institutions

Those attendance numbers have translated into more bachelor’s degrees as well. Women have earned over 200,000 to 280,000 more bachelor’s degrees than men every year since 2002 (NCES Table 380.10).

Updated on June 22, 2021 to highlight the Male Gender-Gap in Post-Secondary Institutions Link also updated:

There has only been one time in U.S. history when men outpaced women by more than 200,000 bachelor’s degrees. In 1950, men earned 225,624 more Bachelor’s degrees than women. One possible suggestion and the most likely was the end of World War II. The need to build a new nation and a new world was thrust upon the United States. The nation responded by introducing the G.I. Bill in 1944; rewarding, with college and career options, those who had risked their lives.

After the WWII education surge, the number of men earning bachelor’s degrees decreased by 1960, but men still earned over 100,000 more degrees than women. A second surge happened in the 1960s and 1970s for beneficiaries of the Korean and Vietnam Wars as well as those looking to defer their military service in Vietnam. Men, military, and college have a structurally shared history.

In their 2018 book, The Boy Crisis, Dr. Warren Farrell and Dr. John Gray mention the use of “social bribes and male disposability” as a common theme in our culture. The observation offers a plausible reason for spikes in college degrees by men closely linked to an era that saw three wars over four decades. Military service provided men and women with college opportunities, yet it was never a prerequisite in the way it was for men.

The Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s provided women with more opportunities and women responded by earning more college degrees. Supporting women’s college careers began and remains rooted in social movements centered around social-justice discourse and policy actions such as Title IX, PELL Grants, the Higher Education Act, and scholarship options.

It’s important to identify policies that contributed to college opportunities for men and women and the way our nation thinks about higher education and gender. As our nation moved away from big scale wars and female students rightly earned their place in universities across the country, funding for women seeking college educations continued to govern discourse in K-12 and college education. Women became the leading narrative of educational initiatives and that narrative continues to this very day for women. But initiatives for men are a much smaller part of the social discourse. The most common discourse in contemporary education may be women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). No such initiatives exist for men in the fields of education, nursing, and other disciplines overwhelmingly female.

Although women and men earn Bachelor’s degrees in greater numbers than 1970, population increase and a new economy do not explain the dramatic male-gender-gap when it comes to attending college and earning college degrees. Social policies and the challenges boys face in K-12 education are contributing factors to the dramatic difference in college attendance and graduation rates [2].

Supporting boys and young men is not a prescription against girls and young women and the conversation regarding boys needs our attention. More than ever, policy makers need to address the ever widening gender gap in higher education and introduce new policies that begin to increase the number of young men attending and graduating from college. Special attention to specific initiatives in the Higher Education Act and PELL Grant funding are some ways government policy can directly improve the futures of boys, families, and communities.

The message that boys and girls love to learn is sacred and necessary. The exercise at my child's school has come to symbolize the way we think about gender and education as a culture. It's time to seriously reevaluate the lack of support our boys encounter on the road to education and provide more opportunities for them, so we can bring all children to the altar of common purpose.

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[1] 2010 Census Bureau data reveals that males slightly outnumbered females aged 20-39, the most likely ages when people are earning college degrees.

[2] See the following books: The Boys Crisis (Warren Farrell), The War Against Boys (Christina Hoff Sommers), A Fine Young Man (Michael Gurian), The Trouble with Boys (Michael Thompson), Boys and Girls Learn Differently (Michael Gurian), and Boys Adrift (Leonard Sax).

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