Women increasingly outnumber men at U.S. colleges—but why?

The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted the shifting representation of men and women on U.S. college campuses, pointing out that men accounted for 71 percent of the overall enrollment decline across the last five years—and 78 percent of pandemic-related drop-outs. As of spring 2021, women made up 59.5 percent of all U.S. college students, a record high.

U.S. Department of Education data further shows that more women are completing their degrees: 65 percent of women who matriculated at a U.S. four-year university in 2012 had graduated by 2018, compared with 59 percent of their male counterparts.

In its analysis, the Journal cautions that men are “abandoning higher education” and that “no reversal is in sight,” given recent application numbers. While acknowledging that “men have been hit particularly hard” by the pandemic’s toll on college enrollment, Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at New America, encourages a broader view. “A closer look at historical trends and the labor market reveals a more complex picture, one in which women keep playing catch-up in an economy structured to favor men,” Carey writes in The New York Times.

Other forces at work

Carey points out that women have made up the majority of U.S. college students for more than four decades now. Men, he writes, “are actually more likely to go to college today than they were when they were the majority” on campuses: shifting gender balances largely reflect sharp increases in women’s enrollment.

It’s also important to consider workforce dynamics, Carey says, noting that “there are still some good-paying jobs available to men without college credentials. There are relatively few for such women.” Male college graduates are also still far more likely than women to end up in high-paying fields, like engineering, while many lower-paying fields are disproportionately female. “The fact that the male-female wage gap remains large after more than four decades in which women outnumbered men in college strongly suggests that college alone offers a narrow view of opportunity,” Carey writes.

Community college drop-off concerning

Even with this broader perspective, the recent decrease in male enrollment and completion—specifically at community colleges—is “a calamity,” Carey says. Men attending two-year schools, institutions that disproportionately educate lower-income students and students of color, accounted for the vast majority of the 2020-21 enrollment drop-off.

Experts suggest that the economic strains of the pandemic likely forced many young men to prioritize earning and to veer away from higher education. About 200,000 fewer women attended community college last year, too, but their enrollment decline was less severe—perhaps “because they no doubt understood the bleak long-term job prospects for women without a credential,” Carey writes.

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