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?
(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.)
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 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 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.
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.
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?
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).
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.
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.)
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?
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.
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.