That disparity continues until, “by eighth or ninth grade, boys have lost interest,” Shelley said.
Many boys beyond that point perceive little benefit to college, especially considering its cost, said Jerlando Jackson, the director and chief research scientist at Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has written about this. To them, he said, it means a lot of sacrifice for a vague payoff far in the future.
Low-income boys in places with the most economic inequality, in particular, suffer what one study called the “economic despair” of seeing little hope for financial advancement. “They think, ‘Well, I could just start out working in the mall and in six years make the same as a classmate who goes to college and whose first post-college job pays them less than I’ll be making then,’” Jackson said.
Meanwhile, boys in many American communities don’t see male role models who have been to college and succeeded, said Keith Bullock at Kentucky’s Berea College (56 percent female). Bullock is the coordinator of programs to support male students, many of them from Appalachia. “They don’t have those examples of doctors and lawyers and professionals.”
Men may also feel they have more alternatives to college than girls do. “For a lot of my [male] high school friends, it was just too much time,” said Smith, the orientation leader at Carlow. “They were ready to get out. As opposed to a four-year college, they could go to an 18-month [vocational-education] program and make just as much money.”
That was the choice of at least one high-school classmate of Vinny Bucci, the male Carlow student Smith pointed out across the student center.
“I had a friend who, instead of going to college, went into trade work, and he said he’d have a job before I did,” said Bucci, who just earned a biology degree and is headed on to graduate school to become a mental-health counselor. “And he does. But when he’s 45, he’ll be miserable.”
He’s also likely to be poorer. People with bachelor’s degrees earn 56 percent more, on average, than people with only high-school educations, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Shelley works with men over 25 who took the route that Bucci’s classmate did, but then got tired of their lives in manual labor and returned to community college. Asked why they were giving school a try again, they tell him, “‘All I do is play video games and hang out with friends. I need to do something with my life.’ I’ve had a number of young men refer to themselves as losers because they hadn’t gotten traction in any career.”
Other male returnees are breadwinners. “Men need to know perhaps more than women what the payoff is going to be,” said Shelley: “‘If I commit to this, what am I going to take away from it? Is there going to be a job two years from now when I walk across the commencement stage?’”