Wednesday, January 24, 2007


The Chronicle has yet another article on the 'boy crisis' in education, this time focusing on colleges. Female undergraduate enrollment nationally passed male enrollment a couple decades ago, and the gap is growing steadily wider. Apparently, some colleges are so afraid of reaching a sort of gender tipping point (at which, say, the dating scene becomes problematic due to skewed ratios) that they're doing special outreach to male students, whether by purging pastels from their catalogs, adding football and engineering, or even lowering admissions standards for men.

This is one of those issues for which context is everything. Male enrollment in colleges hasn't dropped; female enrollment has climbed. That this is a 'problem' strikes me as questionable.

The 'solutions' range from constructive to harmless to awful. There's nothing wrong with adding engineering programs, and toning down the pastels is fine with me. Lower admissions standards won't help, though. CC's have open admissions, and our students are mostly female.

In my own teaching experience, the major gender difference I saw was on the lower end of the grade scale. Bright students could be either. Low-achieving women usually slogged through and passed, even if only with a C or a D. Low-achieving men more often just disappeared. I don't have a handy explanation for that, but it does seem to fit the national data. If you disaggregate the numbers, the gender gap appears most strongly at the lower-income, lower-gpa end of the scale. Among the affluent, it's negligible.

The paradox, of course, is that the numbers flip around once you get to income distribution, corporate America, the 'real world', or whatever other term you care to use. Women get higher GPA's, on average, but men make more money. Occupational choice probably has something to do with that – our Early Childhood Ed majors are almost entirely female, and that profession pays diddlysquat – but it's not as if the CEO's of the Fortune 500 are 50% women.

I suspect that we're seeing the unintended and incidental outcome of a number of otherwise-unrelated phenomena. Young men – especially low-income young men – are vastly overrepresented in our criminal justice system, which I would expect to impact college enrollments. (I suspect, though I haven't looked at the figures, that the military also skews male.) Guys in prison aren't enrolling at the local cc, but their girlfriends are. ADD and ADHD are disproportionately 'male' disorders, and would have direct effects on academic success, especially if undiagnosed. Certain male-dominated jobs don't require college degrees, but if you have the right connections, you can get in.

I hesitate to go to 'human nature' arguments, only because the gender balance didn't tip until the 1980's. I'm reasonably sure that human nature hasn't changed meaningfully since then, so the pop-Jungian “boys will be boys” line doesn't persuade me. The change can be linked to a specific historic moment, and needs to be explained accordingly. For example, the military is probably less male-dominated now than it was in the past, so I don't give that explanation too much weight. The male-dominated but good-paying occupations that don't require college degrees have largely declined since the 1980's. However, the great incarceration boom started in the early 1980's, so that looks like a likelier suspect.

More interesting, to me, is the disconnect between disproportionate female success in college, and disproportionate male success in the economy.

A while back, I did a piece on the three kinds of “A” students: the dutiful, the gifted, and the maniacal. The dutiful are the ones who make flashcards and read with highlighters and turn in papers in snazzy covers. They are almost always female. The gifted can be either. The maniacal are the ones with less stellar GPA's overall, but they hit it out of the park in the areas they care about. They can be either, though they're often male.

My impression is that the mismatch between the gender distribution of good grades and the gender distribution of money is a function of the relative values of the dutiful and the maniacal. The dutiful are stars in school, but limited in the real world. The maniacal are more problematic in school, but the highest (and the lowest) parts of the economic ladder are mostly theirs. The maniacal have a single-mindedness that makes them incredibly strong in one area, but kind of peculiar overall. They are often horrible human beings, on an ethical level, since their single-mindedness allows them to discount other points of view. They make great CEO's.

It may be that with the dwindling of the mid-century behemoth of capital, the General Motors in which The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and The Organization Man prospered, the social reward for dutiful behavior has dwindled relative to the social reward for maniacal behavior. Put differently, the traits rewarded in academia are less and less the traits rewarded in the economy. As a popular saying puts it, and the President of the United States has himself confirmed, the world is run by 'C' students.

For maniacs, as I use the term, it's entirely understandable to reduce education to its economic payoff. It's all about the Benjamins, as they say. For the dutiful, a certain payoff is expected, but too much focus on it is unseemly. (For the gifted, it's sort of irrelevant.)

Or maybe I've gone wildly afield. But I'm guessing that a mismatch between academia and the economy, combined with increased incarceration rates, provides a much better explanation than, say, Human Nature or feminists gone wild. Political correctness isn't much of an issue in the cc's of the world, as far as I've seen, but our enrollments are mostly female, too. Follow the money, and check the prisons.