Reactions to the Gender Shift

April 4, 2004

by Howard and Matthew Greene

Of the dozens of columns we have written in the past few years, our recent piece on The Gender Shift in college admissions has generated possibly the greatest interest. We are hearing from college administrators and faculty with their questions and input as well as from students who describe their experiences on campus today. We wanted to follow up on our column with some additional data on the gender shift, and further discussion of its implications.

There is a lot of data available from the U.S. Department of Education on the college population. These numbers are a few years old, and we strongly suspect that the gender discrepancies are even more dramatic in the last three years as competition for admission has increased and costs have risen dramatically. Among the 15,312,300 college students in America, there were 6,721,800 males in 2000, and 8,590,500 females. That's a 44 percent to 56 percent difference. Breaking down the numbers by racial/ethnic categories, 63 percent of black students were female. Fifty-seven percent of Hispanic students, and 56 percent of white students were female. More specific breakouts by four-year and two-year colleges are available from the Department of Education.

In terms of what is fueling the gender shift, we do not have any sense that more women than men can afford college. Many young men see opportunities for jobs and careers in the technology fields today or the military. Many men did not do well in high school studies and are discouraged from going on to college. Families today are more willing to finance the education of young women than they were a generation or two ago, and there are many great public and private choices available with significant financial aid opportunities. More women now have the freedom and means to complete their higher education, provided they have the academic background to be qualified. Young men have the freedom as well, but disproportionately, they are not qualifying themselves for college entrance and non-need-based financial assistance.

As to the social issues on campus, many women raise the issue of dumbing down in order to fit in. They feel that they need to appear less intellectual or studious in order to be attractive to the men on campus. Women are also very conscious of their appearance, from how they dress to how much they weigh. There is an inordinate amount of dieting issues that turn into eating disorders on campuses today, for example. Binge drinking by women has increased dramatically as they want to be seen as cool and popular by the men. Many of these issues are actually beginning during high school years. The higher the ratio of women to men on any campus, the more the men feel they can be very selfish and picky in terms of dating. We do not mean to stereotype here, or focus on these issues as being of primary importance, but there is a lot of survey data, including our own from our book, "Inside the Top Colleges", which reveals the pressures these issues place on collegiate women.

A number of recent studies also show the importance to young women of being accepted and appreciated by their community. In the school environment, doing well in one's studies brings positive feedback from teachers and parents, and recognition from colleges in the senior year. Young men seem to worry less about the acceptance factor in terms of academic performance. One of the most important governmental actions that has affected the female student population has been the legislation that created Title IX section of the civil rights laws in the '70s. This law requires colleges to provide athletic opportunities for women equal to those for men, from teams to coaches to facilities. The result has been an enormous increase in the number of women's teams and participants. Serious and fun athletic competition is no longer the purview of men only. The popularity of women's athletics has raised the level of participation and competition in middle and high schools. More women are now recruited to colleges for their athletic talent and this has affected enrollment as well.

A decade ago, much of the debate about educating youth seemed to focus on the importance of addressing the needs of girls and young women (see Gilligan's work, for example). More recently, the debate has shifted to the issues faced by boys and young men (see Garbarino or Thompson). We need to work with young women and young men to help them succeed socially, emotionally, and academically, and to see the importance of secondary and college education. In high school and college, we need to work with both genders to retain students through to graduation, recognizing social, academic, cultural, and gender-based concerns that affect students' success.

The implications of the gender shift for society are more important than social life concerns on college campuses. Particularly among underrepresented college groups but also across the entire U.S. population, women are outpacing men in terms of their qualifications for jobs and graduate education programs. The general sense of the marketplace is that more women are being hired by corporations and professional services of all kinds out of college and graduate school today. However, three major concerns are prevalent. There is still a smaller percentage of women entering technical, scientific, engineering fields mostly because fewer women major in these fields in college or graduate school. Far many more do prepare for medical and other health related careers. The work world still seems to be lagging in providing child care and the flexible schedules that many women need in order to focus on their careers and strive for advancement. Women who work in the corporate world feel there exists the famously known "glass ceiling" that prevents them from rising to the highest level of executive management and leadership. They look ahead and see the senior positions but they are not frequently rewarded with such opportunities. Perhaps as more women enter the senior levels of management and government, we will see changes in work practices, hiring, and compensation that will accrue to the benefit of female employees and students. As much as these changes have benefited and will benefit women in our society, we must help young men to keep pace. Over time, fewer men graduating from college could lead to a growing number of young and middle-aged men unable to compete in today's information-oriented economy and to weather employment shifts.