Women became the majority demographic to attend college decades ago, and today, they make up almost 60% of U.S. college undergraduates. But the rate at which women predominate higher ed may be partly due to the declining rate of men attending college and succeeding.
While Fall enrollment among men and women has mostly declined between 2017 and 2022, women have weathered the storm far better across non-profit and for-profit institutions. For example, male enrollment at 4-year public institutions has dropped nearly 6% more than women, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Among all student demographics in this sector, white men experienced the sharpest decline in enrollment, falling nearly 20%. Moreover, fall enrollment rates for women at for-profit institutions have increased in the same period while male enrollment has declined.
Enrollment numbers don’t tell the whole picture. Men are also graduating at a lower rate than women. The rate at which men are graduating from 4-year institutions is 6% less than that of women, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Additionally, a recent report by YouthTruth surveying over 25,000 graduating seniors suggests that the gender gap may widen for higher ed’s next cohort of young students. The Class of 2023 reported that while 68% of young men want to go to college, only 57% expect to actually attend. On the other hand, 83% of young women want to go to college, and 77% expect to go.
Why are men ducking a college degree?
The reasons why men may be skipping out on college are tangled in a web of cultural and socioeconomic factors.
First, students are increasingly looking at vocational training and short-term credentials as a viable route post-high school, and men are more inclined to pursue unskilled labor, such as construction, to earn a wage. “Men at 18 have a higher wage premium than women,” said Michael Hicks, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University (Ind.), according to Newsweek.
Secondly, first-generation college students are 44% less likely to graduate than students with at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree, according to the Pew Research Center. Without proper guidance from family members, men who are first-generation college students may not be able to visualize success in academia truly. “You’re encouraged to go better yourself, but my dad would always call me ‘college boy,’” said one student, according to The Hechinger Report. “It was confusing because I thought it was what I was supposed to be doing. But then there’s this resentment.”
College hopefuls from a minority background may be particularly affected by cultural setbacks. For example, initiatives to boost college enrollment at Montclair State University are facing an uphill battle, according to assistant provost Daniel Jean. “There are more accolades for getting out of jail than for graduating from college,” he said. “There’s an anti-intellectual environment that’s gotten worse. The definition of manhood is often flawed.”
Lastly, among college students, men may be struggling internally but not reaching out for help. More than 40% of men considered quitting college in 2022 and find it challenging to remain enrolled. More than half of all students surveyed on why they considered stopping out cited emotional stress and personal mental health reasons.
Community colleges tackling the problem
One of the key objectives the American Psychological Association made to understand better male academic performance was to examine how Black and minority males may be underserved in academia. At least two community college systems have implemented mentorships and success coaches for minority demographics with promising results.
The North Carolina Community College System, in partnership with one edtech company, led the Minority Male Success Initiative (MMSI). This three-year study examined minority male retention rates over three years when assigned a success coach. Consequently, the study found a 22.4% retention increase in new, minority-male, full-time students pursuing an associate degree and a 47% persistence rate increase in the third term among students with a medium and high risk of dropping out. Online students, too, were significantly impacted, as they experienced an 8.8% increase in course completion rates.
Similarly, the African American Male Education Network and Development (A²MEND), spanning across California’s 116-campus community college system, is creating individualized mentoring and meeting spaces for its Black students. In 2021, A²MEND’s reported that “two-thirds” of its mentored students remained in college during the COVID-19 pandemic despite the overall 8% drop in African American males in that same period. Moreover, “most” students continued their studies by transferring to a California college system institution or an HBCU, according to the statement.
Is the tide changing?
The pandemic may have caused a shift in declining enrollment rates for women. Between Spring 2021 and 2023, female college enrollment has dropped twice the rate of men, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. This concerning figure deserves an analysis over an extended period to judge whether this is an anomaly or a new trend.