Seeking more male students, colleges tailor outreach, programming

U.S. higher education institutions are working on long-term strategies to appeal to male students, as fewer men apply to college, enroll, and complete their degrees, according to The Hechinger Report. Women continue to outnumber men nearly two to one among the undergraduate student population (64% vs 36%), according to the Fall 2022 enrollment data from the National Center for Education Statistics. There have been various, effective efforts to boost the number of women attending college, and men need similar outreach, experts say. 

“We’ve sent a really strong and positive message to girls and women. But we haven’t had similar messages for boys and men,” Richard Reeves, president of the American Institute for Boys and Men, tells The Hechinger Report. “We’ve now got to do a little bit of self-correction here and say, look, of course we want girls and women to continue to rise in the education system, but we don’t want to leave the boys and men behind.”

Gender gap in postsecondary education

Much of the gender gap in college enrollment and completion is driven by a decline in the percentage of male high school graduates attending four-year colleges and universities, says Pew Research Center. Men are also completing college at lower rates than women. Nationwide, as of 2017, the six-year college graduation rate for women (65.6%) was over seven percentage points higher than for men (58.4%), according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Related: At many HBCUs, men represent just one third of undergraduates

The gender gap in national high school graduation rates is another source of declining college enrollment among male students. Men are less likely than women to finish high school in four years, and when they graduate, financial barriers remain a major obstacle to a postsecondary degree. 

However, personal preferences are also motivating male students to opt out of college, says the Pew Research Center. Men are less likely than women to believe they need a degree to get the job, and more likely than women to say not wanting to attend college was a major reason why they chose not to. Men are also more likely than women to stop out of postsecondary programs to pursue career opportunities. 

Strategies to increase male enrollment and retention

Colleges looking to increase enrollment and completion among male students would be wise to seek input from male students who are successfully completing their degrees, Shaun Harper, founder and executive director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, tells The Hechinger Report. “There’s a lot that we can learn from them that we could scale and adapt to everyone else,” says Harper.

To increase gender parity, some colleges are establishing outdoor academic programs, adding more men’s sports teams, and increasing visible signs of “school spiritedness,” which research says can be particularly appealing to male students. Based on focus group results showing that young men are interested in the outdoors, the University of Montana (UM) is sending emails tailored to prospective male college students that promote hunting class, a forestry program, and recreational opportunities; accepted students receive promotional materials that highlight outdoor activities and campus events, such as hiking, skiing, and country-and-western shows. 

The University of Vermont (UVM), meanwhile, recently held its first Vermont Pitch Challenge, which invited high school entrepreneurs to compete for a full scholarship to UVM by submitting business proposals for potential startup companies to address financial barriers to college. Research had suggested that entrepreneurship programs would appeal to high school boys. Both UVM and UM say their efforts have increased male students’ interest and enrollment in their schools. 

UVM also is reaching out to male students of color by establishing a mentorship program that provides summer internships, networking events, and priority registration, while the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center is working to help community colleges recruit and retain Black and Latine men and other male students of color.

Speaking about the increased focus on male students, Kelly Nolin, UM’s director of undergraduate admissions, tells The Hechinger Report, “Ultimately all students want to know, ‘Am I going to fit in? Do I belong?’”

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