Wednesday, August 09, 2017


Some commenters took issue with my example in yesterday’s post.  The example wasn’t the point -- the gist of the piece was about trying to have a conversation when it becomes clear that your interlocutor is playing by different ground rules -- but since I made a fuss about facts, well, fair is fair.

I had taken issue with a piece in the Atlantic about the supposed lack of male students in higher education in the US.  The Atlantic piece asserted that young men are so burned by the anti-male climate of high school that they avoid college upon graduation, often only coming back later in life.  I suggested that the piece was exactly backwards; in fact, the real gender skew among undergraduates occurs among older students, rather than those of traditional age.  In other words, the narrative that men only find their way back later in life doesn’t mesh with the facts.

Some commenters took issue with my invocation of facts as a category; they wanted numbers.  In retrospect, they had a point.  So, here goes.

The Digest for Education Statistics is produced by the National Center for Education Statistics, which is generally accepted as a solid source.  According to the 2015 edition -- the most recent one available, drawing on actual data from 2013 -- and using figures from table 303.40, roughly 46 percent of the undergraduates in the US between ages 18 and 21 are male.  That’s pretty close to the percentage of males in the general population of that age, especially after correcting for different incarceration rates.  For students age 25 and up, though, only 39 percent are male.  That’s considerably farther from the general population, especially if -- and I’ll admit speculation here -- we top out around age 60.  Beyond that age, the general population starts to skew more female, but I suspect the absolute numbers of undergraduates of that age is small.  

In other words, the missing males aren’t the ones fresh out of high school.  They’re the ones who’ve been out of high school for years.  

The Digest doesn’t appear to break those figures out by sector (two-year vs. four-year), which is unfortunate; I’d like to know if that makes a difference.  I would imagine higher average ages overall in community colleges, which would suggest a higher ratio of women to men, but that’s a guess.

To the extent that the story of a gender gap is more about age than about high school, prospective solutions are tougher.  The data above suggest that the great untapped market isn’t men right out of high school; it’s men who’ve been out of high school for years.  Anecdotally, they’re probably less likely to be lured by sports teams, though engineering majors hold promise.

A correspondent from another state wrote me with the stats for community colleges there, and they came within one point of the national numbers.  But the state totals included considerable variation from campus to campus, with the “technical” colleges having more men.  That squared with my time at DeVry, where men outnumbered women even among older students.  (I later learned from Tressie McMillan Cottom that DeVry was an outlier in that sense.  Over subsequent years, its profile came closer to the industry norm.)  Program mix may offer one line of attack.  Even now, on a large-ish campus in a blue state, our allied health programs skew very female, and our automotive tech program skews very male.  The pull of cultural norms is strong.

If I had access to the numbers -- and I suspect some of my wise and worldly readers do -- I’d also love to see these broken down by race/ethnicity as well as age.  I suspect the gap isn’t evenly distributed, which could further refine strategies for finding and retaining the missing men.  

Thanks to the commenters for keeping me honest.  If facts matter, the myth should be busted.  Now I’ll be fascinated to see if citing specific numbers does anything to break the hold of the myth.  I’d like to think it would...