Why Men Are Falling Behind in Higher Ed

For decades, colleges and universities were largely the domain of men. Men held the top teaching positions, dominated academic thought, and made up the largest portion of the student body. Women were long the minority, but as society changed, colleges changed, too, and now college campuses are just as welcoming to women as their male counterparts.

This leveling of the education playing field has been good for both women and men, but while men still head to college in droves, over the past decade it has become clear that in some ways, it is now men who are being left behind in higher education. Nationwide, more women aspire to college, enroll in college, and stick around for graduation than men. The difference in numbers may not be monumental, but it is significant, and some worry that without a college education men may become less competitive in the job market.

What is driving men away from college, and how can they get back in the game? The answer isn’t simple, nor is it entirely understood just yet, but many are working on figuring out just how to bring men back into the fold and ensure that college is never again a prospect that favors one gender over another.

The Reversal of the Gender Gap

For most of higher education’s history, women were a rare sight among the student body, but not anymore. Since 2000, women have made up almost 60% of enrolled students at American colleges, an all-time high and an incredible shift from just 12.2% in 1947. Many experts believe this shift, one of the biggest among college demographics, has been driven by a growth of incentives and opportunities for women to complete college.


It’s important to note that this gender gap among college students isn’t universal. At most Ivy League schools, the mix is much closer to 50/50, and some top schools still enroll more men than women. This is especially true for schools with strong programs in areas like computer science and engineering, which tend to attract larger numbers of male applicants.

Some schools have made efforts to balance their student body by gender, but in some cases there are simply too many applicants from one gender or another to possibly achieve any real balance while still maintaining a high level of selectivity. And that may be one of the things at the heart of the issue of men falling behind in higher education: men simply aren’t applying. What’s more, even when men do enroll, they’re much less likely to finish school and to earn a degree than their female counterparts. It’s a change that’s extremely difficult to explain and remedy because so many factors — cultural, social, economic — come into play.

What’s Keeping Men from College?


Men have no fewer opportunities and motivations to go to college and earn a degree than they’ve had in the past, but statistics show that they’re quickly becoming outnumbered by women both in college enrollment and college graduation.

Interest in School

One of the simplest explanations may be that fewer men are interested in going to college than their female classmates. According to U.S. Department of Education information, men make up only 44% of college applicants. Colleges can’t accept students who don’t apply. But why do fewer men even bother applying to college in the first place? There are a couple of factors at play.

Part of the problem may lie in the critical years before college. Men are more likely to drop out of high school than women in nearly all states, though by varying degrees and with low-income and minority men much more likely to drop out than all other students. Even those who stay in school may not see college as an option. Male students are less likely to take AP courses and exams, which have long been used to earn college credit hours before enrolling in college.

While fewer men aspire to college than women, the numbers of men who want to go to college aren’t low by any means: 90% of men versus 96% of women. The problem may not be in aspiration but in how male students seek out information about college and when they choose to enroll. Male high school students are much less likely to look up information about colleges or to reach out to college officials for help and information, which could lead to many not understanding their options for college. Of those who do enroll, only two-thirds of men do so right after high school, and less than half chose a four-year school. Both of these factors have been shown to result in lower graduation rates.

Some research also suggests that men simply put less value on college than women do, questioning whether it’s necessary or whether the cost is worth the benefit. As a result, men are more likely to head directly into the workforce after high school graduation. Dr. Carlos Campo, president of Regent University, says that this may be driven in part by the economy, which has forced many men to get jobs to support themselves instead of heading to college. “Employers are increasingly providing workplace training, which supplants the need to go to college in many industries,” Campo says. This is especially true in fields that are traditionally male-dominated, like construction and manufacturing.

The Cost and Skill Gaps

Financial concerns may play a role in keeping men from college degrees in other ways, too. The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth revealed that student loans, while helpful to both men and women, were likely to make men feel discouraged about their debt levels $2,000 sooner than women and to drop out of school, even when all other factors were accounted for. Why? Researchers believe that it’s because women tend to have fewer job prospects if they don’t have a college degree, with men better able to provide for themselves without a degree and the heavy debt that can come with it. Sadly, this financial advantage is short-lived; by midlife, men who stuck it out with their college studies earn an average of $20,000 more than college dropouts annually.

It’s not just money that drives men away from college, however, even if they decide to enroll. Some researchers have suggested that college, and education as a whole, is simply geared towards more typically feminine traits. Studies have shown that while boys perform better than their female peers on standardized tests, they get lower grades from their teachers, a disparity researchers have attributed to their classroom behavior. It turns out that teacher assessment counts a lot, even for students who don’t necessarily struggle with the material, and with courses at all levels requiring students to sit still and focus, excel at communication, and be emotionally sensitive — typically skills females are better at — male students may be at an intrinsic disadvantage. This small difference can add up, leading some students to feel frustrated, come to dislike school, and make them more motivated to drop out altogether.

Some researchers put the blame on male students, not their teachers, for this gap in educational achievement. Claudia Bachman and Thomas DiPrete’s research, cataloged in The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it Means for American Schools, suggests that male students simply aren’t putting in the effort and staying in engaged in ways that would make them successful in school. They believe that schools need to raise expectations for male students, work at changing stereotypes that say education and good grades are important for boys, and do a better job of showing the pathways men have to a college degree and the careers it opens up.


Other theories take a different route, including one of the most well-known pieces on the topic, Hannah Rosin’s The End of Men. According to Rosin, men are falling behind because women are simply more adaptable, whether by nature or because of the flexibilities they’re allowed by cultural norms. This adaptability has made it easier for women to navigate to a rapidly changing economic situation. Men, she argues, are clinging to an older, outdated way of doing things that’s putting them behind in terms of college achievement and other measures of success. Rosin’s book has been controversial, but it raises some important issues about the roles we assign to men and women that may be critical parts of how students view themselves and their future potential.

The gaps between men and women with regard to participation in higher education aren’t even across the board. Certain groups have much higher levels of disparity between female and male attainment of higher education. Low-income, black, and Hispanic men are less likely to go to college and often much less likely to graduate than women from these same groups. For these men, trouble in education may start early with many attending schools with greater numbers of novice teachers, fewer classroom resources, and fewer college preparatory courses. Minority men are also much more likely to get suspended. Research shows that 59% of black males and 42% of Hispanic males report being suspended, compared with just 26% of white males.


Even those who are smart and stay out of trouble may simply not see college as an option. Campo believes that many minority men simply lack peers and mentors who will urge them to go to college, making it seem both less attainable and less commonplace to get a college degree. Even historically black colleges see incredible disparity among female and male enrollment, with some schools, like Clark Atlanta University having a student body that’s 71% female.

How Men Can Keep Up


While some may find the growing disparities between men and women in education troubling, the reality is that, generally speaking, men still have it pretty good. They still surpass women in earnings and political power, and that doesn’t appear to be changing radically anytime soon, though college could play a critical factor in that as the economy shifts. Even with rising tuition and competition for jobs, college is still a smart investment for most. The Pew Economic Mobility Project released just this year showed that a college degree still helps people find better jobs and earn more money. In fact, the value of a college degree hasn’t been affected all that much by the recession, even if media reports suggest otherwise. College is, and will likely remain, a solid investment.

So how can young men get to college and stick it out through graduation to reap benefits like lower unemployment and higher lifetime earnings? Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Start early. For young men in high school, it’s never too soon to start thinking about college. Starting early will allow for more time to ensure your grades are solid, to research colleges, study for entrance exams, and to learn about opportunities for financial aid. The more you know, the more confident you’ll be in your decision to apply.
  • Don’t assume college isn’t for you. Struggling with school? Don’t automatically assume college is out of reach. You still have time to work to improve your grades, and even if you’ve already graduated, you will likely be able to get into a community college where you can work at improving your performance and perhaps even apply to a four-year school later.
  • Ask for help. Studies have shown that men are much less likely to seek out support from administrators and faculty both when choosing a college and while students. Don’t let this be you. There is no shame in asking for help or guidance if you need it, especially if it helps keep you in school and getting a return on your investment.
  • Cater courses to your personal needs. These days, there are far more options for taking college courses than the traditional in-class lecture. If that doesn’t work for you, try online, hybrid, or hands-on work in laboratories and studios. You may just find that these help you stay engaged and actually make you want to go to class.
  • Take advantage of assistance programs. There are dozens of programs that can help students be more successful in college, whether you’re a minority, are struggling financially, or are the first in your family to go to college. Finding others who are in the same position and getting guidance from older mentors can be invaluable.
  • Keep your costs low. If money is a concern, and it usually is, it’s smart to keep college costs as low as possible. Campo advises that men commute to school on a bike or use public transportation. “Many young men get trapped by car payments, insurance, and other costs into working longer hours,” he says. “Their college studies offer suffer as it becomes harder to balance the two.” To avoid this, keep costs low so you can focus on school and getting your degree without extra debt hanging over your head.
  • Find a mentor. Along that same line, even if you don’t take part in a school program, it can be incredibly beneficial to find a mentor in the field you want to work in. He or she can help you learn the ropes, network, and find motivation to stay in school.

While fewer men are heading to college than women, that doesn’t mean men should turn away from college as a way to prepare for a long and successful career. With the right help and support, men from all backgrounds can be successful in higher education, earn a degree, and get a job with room for advancement. Like anything worth having in life, however, getting there will take hard work, sacrifices, and a willingness to ask for help when you need it. The challenge will be well worth it when you look back and see all that you’ve accomplished.