The Enrollment Gap Colleges Don’t Like to Talk About

by James A. Bacon

While college administrators across Virginia and the United States fixate on the racial/ethnic makeup of their institutions, there’s a large and growing gender gap. Young women dominate enrollment at most higher-ed institutions these days. Fewer young men are applying, and even when they do, they’re dropping out more frequently. Administrators don’t like male-female imbalances because students don’t like it — colleges are mating markets as much as they’re centers of learning — but no one seems to be doing much about it.

There is no simple explanation for the large and growing mismatch. There is likely the same kind of “pipeline” problem we see with minorities — fewer males are applying for college because fewer are graduating from high school with college-ready skills. Additionally, males also may be more prone to substance abuse and mental illness, syndromes that are highly disruptive to academic performance.

There’s another possible reason, one that appeals to conservatives who see higher-ed institutions as dens of ideological inequity. In a higher-ed world dominated by the ideology of interesectionality — heterosexual white males are the O- of human society, universal oppressors — young men, especially young white men, experience college as a hostile environment. There may be some merit to this view, but it is only part of a larger story.

A recent Wall Street Journal column illuminates the extent of the enrollment gap:

At the close of the 2020-21 academic year, women made up 59.5% of college students, an all-time high, and men 40.5%, according to enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit research group. U.S. colleges and universities had 1.5 million fewer students compared with five years ago, and men accounted for 71% of the decline.

This education gap, which holds at both two- and four-year colleges, has been slowly widening for 40 years.

In the next few years, two women will earn a college degree for every man, if the trend continues, said Douglas Shapiro, executive director of the research center at the National Student Clearinghouse.

The gap is evident at many public Virginia universities, though it is less pronounced than seen in the national figures.

  • University of Virginia: 54% women, 46% men. (Within my lifetime, UVa was all-male.)
  • Virginia Commonwealth University: 61% women, 39% men.
  • George Mason University: 52% women, 48% men.
  • Old Dominion University: 56% women, 44% men.
  •  Virginia Tech: 57% men, 43% women.

Virginia Tech is the rare exception because of the prominence of its engineering program, which traditionally has been dominated by males. (Although Tech is trying like hell to change that.)

What’s going on? The WSJ quotes social scientists who cite distractions and obstacles such as videogames, pornography, increased fatherlessness, and over-diagnosis of boyhood restlessness and overmedication. Then there’s institutional bias:

Young men get little help, in part, because schools are focused on encouraging historically underrepresented students. Jerlando Jackson, department chair, Education Leadership and Policy Analysis, at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Education, said few campuses have been willing to spend limited funds on male underachievement that would also benefit white men, risking criticism for assisting those who have historically held the biggest educational advantages.

Some argue that institutional bias runs far deeper than malign neglect. The Generational Theft blog sums up the sentiment succinctly: “Most colleges are ultra-woke. Nobody wants to be charged exorbitant tuition rates to be treated as an oppressor for four to six years.”

Sounding a similar theme, a post on American Greatness builds a thesis that young men find little value in paying tens of thousands of dollars for a college experience that prioritizes leftist indoctrination over critical reasoning.

I dream that someday soon, people will notice that the colleges have become less than worthless; that by a half-diligent application the graduate leaves the college stupider than nature ever intended any grown person to be, not only failing to see the truth, but upholding absurdities and follies with a fervor to make Torquemada look like Milquetoast; that the colleges train young people in egotism and hedonism; that graduates will be intolerant, vindictive, and eager to seize upon any excuse to condemn you for not swinging the right direction in the wind; that these graces of person and character will not be tempered by any useful knowledge or insights into the human condition; that their writing will be worse after four years than it was when they were freshmen, more clotted with jargon and slogans; that they will be less likely to read with close attention, because their professors will have taught them the habit of easy labeling; that they will be less capable of wonder, slouching in soul as in body.

I am somewhat sympathetic to this argument. The “hostile environment” line of argumentation might explain why young men are more likely to drop out of college. But it doesn’t explain why increasing numbers of young men fail to apply to college in the first place.

The WSJ article doesn’t directly address the transformation of higher-ed institutions into indoctrination mills, but it does present data that bears upon the issue. Gaps between males and females apply across income-groups, and it applies to Whites, Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics alike. If White men felt especially alienated from the modern-day university, one would expect that to be reflected in the enrollment numbers. It isn’t.

“White men’s enrollment rate isn’t much higher, and is often lower than, minority men in the same income group,” the WSJ says. .

There are larger social forces at work. Popular culture as a whole has become anti-male. That’s not a problem for past generations of men who were raised, attended college and embarked upon careers when male privilege was a real thing, but it is a problem for young men today. College enrollments are merely one facet of a much bigger phenomenon.