Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Why Don’t Men Return to College?

You know how the hook of a song can get stuck in your head, or how you sorta, kinda recognize an actor in something and you can’t stop trying to remember where you’ve seen him before?  (Actual conversation at home: “Hey, it’s that guy from...uh...”  “Oh, yeah!  That one with the girl from the show?”  “Yeah, that’s it...”)  

Some questions have that same effect on me.  Once I’ve either heard or asked them, I can’t let them go.  This is one of those.  Why don’t men return to college?

It’s a national phenomenon.  It’s hardly news that community college student enrollments skew female; we already know that.  But if you disaggregate by age, you quickly find that the gender split among traditional-aged students is pretty close to even.  As age increases, though, the group becomes decidedly more female.  Among students over about age 25, ratios of 3 to 1 are hardly unusual.  

Which raises an obvious question.  Where are the guys over 25?

I’ve been bouncing this idea around Twitter for the past few days, and I even had a brief discussion with someone from the CCRC at the conference.  I’ve heard a few working ideas, but nothing that feels like it fully answers the question.  So this post is my attempt to think out loud and possibly crowdsource an answer.  If someone out there is aware of some research that I’ve missed, I’d love to hear about it.

One possible factor is incarceration rates.  Men are incarcerated at higher rates than women.  Outside of a few programs, most inmates don’t attend college while they’re inmates.  (Whether that’s good or bad is another question; I’m just looking for explanations.)  This strikes me as part of the picture, but I don’t think the effect is enough to explain everything.

The second easy guess is opportunity cost.  If men without degrees tend, on average, to make more money than women without degrees, then the cost to a family of sending Mom back to school is less than the cost of sending Dad back to school.  The male wage premium becomes a male opportunity cost penalty.

This strikes me as plausible, though probably less than it would have twenty years ago.  The old unionized jobs are mostly either gone or grandfathered -- and therefore held mostly by the 50+ crowd -- and the construction industry still isn’t close to recovered from 2008.  

On Twitter, one reader from Utah suggested that in some areas, early childbirth is still a cultural norm.  That explains not attending college at 18, but it doesn’t explain why women return and men don’t.  And the cultural norms of Utah don’t explain, say, New England.  

It’s true that much of the job growth, and the retraining for the job growth, has been in health care fields, which have historically been identified with women.  But given the powerful economic incentives, I would have expected more men to move into that field by now.  Apparently not.

I’ve seen research on gender in higher ed, but most of it falls along one of two lines: either how to bring more women into STEM fields, or how to improve the success rates of young men of color.  Both are valid lines of inquiry, but neither really sheds light on this question. (There’s also a distasteful, essentialist “school is feminine” line that seems to suggest that manly man are too busy doing manly male man things to bother with books and other sissified pursuits.  I have a hard time with that one, since men dominated higher education into the 1990’s.  And the ages at which guys are the most knuckleheaded -- the late teens -- are the ages at which we still get them.  So that just doesn’t hold water.)

The question about bringing more adult men back to college isn’t just based on curiosity.  We’re looking at declining numbers of high school grads for the next several years, which means that if we’re going to maintain or grow our enrollments, we’ll have to reach the adult market.  We do pretty well at reaching adult women, but adult men remain a challenge.  And the first step to attracting them is figuring out what’s keeping them away.

So, wise and worldly readers, I’m looking for help in figuring this one out.  Why don’t adult men return to college anywhere near as often as adult women do?

I think there may be a cultural component. I think the women's right movement very successfully pushed education as a method for gaining independence, and it's just hung around. Poor men could move up by essentially just working harder. Women needed to actually be taught mental skills since they couldn't do manual labor. Not to mention that for a long time women weren't allowed to go to college (and many weren't educated on basic reading and writing in the lowest classes), increasing its desirability by its exclusivity... Anyways, that's probably of soft component of the problem.
I expect that childbearing, as much as it factors into women dropping out of education or the wage labour force, ironically enables women to drop back into college or university once the child is old enough for school or daycare. The woman can justify the time and effort to retrain or pursue an education because their domestic CV isn't going to rock the employers.

(And, yes, I see about 2/1 women/men in our non-traditional students, many of them mothers whose children are now old enough for family care or school.)
This paper http://www.ucc.ie/publications/heeu/Mature/mature_8.htm is oldish so might not be relevant anymore especially as it says female participation is increasing, but could this be a US thing and the gap is different elsewhere?

A complete guess but... do men see higher ed as something they can do? Have men who only did high school or not even that internalised the idea they can't do education at all?

Friend of mine ended up as a TAFE (sorta like CC but mainly vocationally focused) teacher in his 40s. He left school at 15 and it wasn't until a woman he met encouraged him to use his undoubted gifts to try for an advertised role (and helped him a lot with the paperwork and the first year of writing and management).

He's now teaching English and how to live in Australia to refugees. But he'd never have done it without her, convinced he wasn't able to do education. And probably couldn't have navigated the writing-heavy early days either.

I think it has to do with the fact that most guys who have what it takes to succeed in college go at the time. Many women with similar educational skills get derailed by having kids either in high school or right after. So coming back later is a bigger hurdle for guys who struggled with school at the time, where their counterparts might be rusty but remember getting good grades in middle/ early high school and generally being successful in that environment. They can see themselves in school in their mind's eye, so it's not as big a leap for them. The guys, especially those who have served time in prison, also have a bit of learned helplessness - they don't really believe school will get them anywhere because they've been shot down so many times. This has been my observation teaching in for profit and community colleges.
I'm fascinated that the effect is national, which suggests to me that it is cultural.

I don't buy incarceration rates as an explanation unless you are seeing a racial and gender difference in the data that mirrors differences in incarceration rates in your area.

I do know that we have a LOT of returning male students who are war veterans, and that they often require different support systems than regular FTIC students fresh out of HS.

I have two suggestions:

1) Follow the SC4 idea on your campus, putting as much relevant data out there for your campus to see and consider. I've never seen data on this question, but I would want to know if there are census data of relevance in addition to what the college knows about who quit and when and why. Perhaps they are being supported by their girlfriend or parents? Perhaps they would be interested in one of your programs but you don't advertise where they would see the info.

2) Don't discount the "school is feminine" issue just because you don't like how it tastes. If a guy didn't do well in K-12 sitting quietly in rows with a woman teaching the vast majority of their classes over 12 years, the reaction to a developmental classroom filled with desks led by a woman might be conditioned rather than reality based. It could even start at orientation, sitting quietly in your seats being lectured to for way too long. They might not give it a shot long enough to find out a CC has really good teachers with a more active learning environment than HS.
I suspect men without degrees making more money than women without degrees is a possibility. When I taught in an evening program, I also noticed a strong trend of divorced women looking for a way to better support their kids as a single mother. That's why and when my own mother went to community college. I also taught in an evening master's and saw the same effect minus the children--college educated women recently divorced looking to completely change their lives by seeking a new profession. No idea if divorce factors in but I'd be curious to know how many non-trad students are divorced.
My observation when teaching at a community college (5 years and counting) was that the women who are coming back have generally been in a long term relationship, had one or more kids, and always envisioned themselves with a partner to carry the load of breadwinner (or at least primary breadwinner). Then the relationship failed and the found themselves with a kid (or several) and bills that couldn't be paid working as a checker at the local safeway.

I heard variations on this story over and over; women, who hadn't expected to need to support their family on their own, suddenly finding that they were the sole breadwinner, which motivated them to go back to school in order to earn more money. That story isn't as common with men; I don't think they ever assume that a partner will be there. Many (particularly hispanic) still conform to traditional gender roles and therefore expect to be the breadwinner. They either go to school before they start a family or they assume they won't get a chance.
They join the military?
It's also the format. A continuation of HS with 45 or 50 or90 minute classes, then you walk a block and switch to another class; groups around a table or rows of desks. It would be interesting to break this down by program; I'd guess that the ones where you are in class for half a day and the class is hands-on with accompanying math/reading skills classes have a higher percentage of men. Also, building trades apprenticeship programs should be counted as male participation in CC's, as should police academy, merchant marines, etc.
My understanding using 2011 data was that working full time with just a high school diploma a woman typically earned 74 % of what the equivalent man made.

The opportunity cost is higher for men to go back.

There is also an opportunity cost that favors women. Childcare in this country still falls primarily on women. If women with children or planning to have children are going to work, they have to earn enough to pay for child care. The cost of working. More than likely the full-time job with just a high school diploma is likely not going to cut it. There is incentive therefore to get a college degree that is not found with men.
Devil's advocate here...why should they. If they can, without a degree, get a job that pays what they need it to pay to support themselves or their family, why would you go back to school? Even the most uninformed can't help but hear how expensive school is.

I don't want to say men are unambitious but on an individual level, couldn't that be part of it? Combined with no real need to do so?
While my experience with non-traditional students is somewhat limited (and I have not worked with a CC population), my observation of the differences between male and female students in higher education is that women are more MOTIVATED. They are the ones who are the class officers, the group leaders, they go to career services, perform volunteer work (and overall, their grades are better than their male counterparts) in numbers far higher than the campus gender ratio would predict. (I've worked at places that are around 54/46 female/male)

Now, as others have said, the motivation may be due to external factors (children, single parent, failed relationship) or internal (desire to become more educated, train for a different career, etc.), but I think (I have no data, of course) that perhaps more women than men view returning for higher education as a valuable resource.

Think about the phrase "back to school." You use it in your post a couple of times. I just think women tend to view it as an opportunity and men see it as a punishment (or a demotion).

It strikes me that when thinking about gender in trying to figure this out, it make be more important to think about masculinity than femininity. Here's what I mean. It's not that men don't return because "school is feminine," in some simplistic way. It might be more that indexes of adult masculinity are "success" and "earning" and school is counter to those in a short-term analysis. Returning to school 1) opens up a person to the possibility of failure, and 2) while it may increase earning power in the long term, it may also decrease earning power in the short term or at the very least cost money for something that is not immediately tangible.

Yes, men dominated higher ed historically, but historically the population of students tended to be mostly traditionally aged. Has the number of non-trad men decreased? Or has it remained about static, or has it increased at a slower rate than the number of non-trad women? If it's the former, then arguments about gender may well hold some weight, as long as we grant that "gender" isn't just about femininity or the rejection of femininity.
Here at Large State U the office of institutional research breaks our retention rates down by gender. We see that women are retained at a higher rate than men. By the time they are 4th (and 5th and 6th) year students, the class skews much more heavily female than it did when they were freshmen.
I think the cultural expectations about career paths play a really large role. Women are much more likely to expect and even seek non-linear career paths is favor of "balance" while men generally still see themselves in the role of breadwinner, whatever else their role in the family is. Women consider taking time out, when that should happen, re-entering the workforce, and other timing issues as part of the deal, no matter how high up in the food chain they are so taking a different path is part of the plan. Retraining/going back to school is more socially acceptable for women and perhaps just the knowledge of the possibility makes it more likely. It's hard to do something if you don't consider it an option.
I think a key point that hasn't been mentioned in any of the comments is this: The question is not "Why are gender ratios unbalanced in CCs (and lower-tier 4-years)?" It's: "Why has the gender ratio *changed* so much in the recent past?"

When I started teaching at Indiana University Northwest (in 1987), the student population was about 55/45 female/male. In the MBA program, it was about 30/70 f/m. When I retired (about a year ago, it was 70/30 f/m (and 60/40 in the MBA program). So what has *changed*?

The relative earnings for males with only a HS education have declined relative to males with come college/gollege degrees, and that gap has widened faster (as I recall--I didn't look it up right now) for men than for women. In fact, the real earnings of HS educated men have declined fairly sharply. So in that sense, the opportunity cost of attending college has declined for men.

Have divorce rates been increasing? I don't know, but that could factor into it.

But, as far as I can tell, the question is what has *changed*? And I don't really see anyone addressing that. (Including me, of course.)
I'm in a unique position in some ways, I'm a CC prof -- have been for about 13 years -- and my (newish) partner is a male who returned to college in his 40s. I encouraged him to return to school and I've seen his challenges first-hand, since he returned to my CC. He's unusual in that he doesn't have to have a job right now -- so the opportunity cost was relatively low. He is also unusual because he had a partner experienced in higher ed in general, and his CC in particular.

I don't have any ideas about the recent past, but did speculate about long term trends in a blog entry I wrote about 4 years ago.

The data shown there are also a bit out of date but do indicate just how real the trend "doc" described has been over the past 50 years. Those data argue that the change is not "recent" but is a continuation of a trend that goes back 50 years.

Allowing for the lag between the census of 25-29 year olds and when they started college, I see three distinct periods: a rapid rise for women from 1960 to after 1970 (baby boom) that paralleled that for men but started later, a level period of slow growth for women and a drop for men once the Vietnam draft ended, then another period of growth for women from 1990 to the present (boomer kids) that has no comparable change for men.

So what is recent is that the graduation rate for men has basically stagnated for 40 years while that for women has continued to grow. More ambition?
Because Men Are Finished
What has changed? Women have to work in our society. As productivity gains have been extracted to expand the wealth of the top 1 %, it is becoming less likely a family can survive on a single income for extended periods of time. Add in divorce rates and women being the primary caregivers, also women who need to have good paying jobs. Lower upfront cost for older women to go to college then men.

Families see the need to earn more in a few years. Too costly for men to attend in the short run. Families need that money. Lower barrier for women to attend.

What you have is a lowering of cultural barriers to women attending and a greater need for them to attend while maintaining the cost barrier for men.
I like the following hypotheses:

1) Men join the military.
2) Women with less formal education have lower opportunity costs.
3) Men feel entitled not to have to go to school and just kind of drop out more.

All of them are mutually reinforcing, and none of them preclude the others.
I also think you shouldn't discount the "school is feminine" aspect of the gender gap. I think there is some truth to the stereotype that men don't read. If you aren't a strong reader, college seems really daunting. Also, there are plenty of jobs in the trades (plumbing, electrical work, mechanics, etc.) for non-degreed men that are just not open for women. "Women's jobs" (nursing, teaching, etc.) require certificates, and therefore college attendance.
Also many men have to deal with the burden of paying child support and so can't afford to return to college - unlike the mothers who are receiving that money. Admittedly, it's a bit more complicated...
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