Colleges Have a Guy Problem

A recent viral news story reported that a generation of young men is abandoning college. The pattern has deep roots.

Illustration of a graduation cap with a "bang" sign attached to the tassel
Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, technology, and the media. He is the author of Hit Makers and the host of the podcast Crazy/Genius.

American colleges and universities now enroll roughly six women for every four men. This is the largest female-male gender gap in the history of higher education, and it’s getting wider. Last year, U.S. colleges enrolled 1.5 million fewer students than five years ago, The Wall Street Journal recently reported. Men accounted for more than 70 percent of the decline.

The statistics are stunning. But education experts and historians aren’t remotely surprised. Women in the United States have earned more bachelor’s degrees than men every year since the mid-1980s—every year, in other words, that I’ve been alive. This particular gender gap hasn’t been breaking news for about 40 years. But the imbalance reveals a genuine shift in how men participate in education, the economy, and society. The world has changed dramatically, but the ideology of masculinity isn’t changing fast enough to keep up.

For decades, American women have been told that the path to independence and empowerment flows through school. Although they are still playing catch-up in the labor force, and leadership positions such as chief executive and senator are still dominated by men, women have barnstormed into colleges. That is the very definition of progress. In poorer countries, where women are broadly subjugated or otherwise lack access to regular schooling, girls enjoy no educational advantage whatsoever.

Still, gender inequality on something as important as education presents problems, no matter what direction the inequality points in. While men are more likely to go to college than they were 10 years ago, something seems to be restraining the growth of male enrollment. In 1970, men accounted for 57 percent of college and university students. Two years later, Congress passed Title IX regulations that prohibited sex-based discrimination in any school that received federal funding. “The fact that the gender gap is even larger today, in the opposite direction, than it was when Congress determined that we needed a new law to promote equal education seems like something we should pay attention to,” says Richard Reeves, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who is writing a book about men and boys in the economy. “I’m struck by the fact that nobody seems to understand why this is happening.”

The U.S. education gender gap isn’t just a college phenomenon. Long before female students outnumber men on university campuses, they outperform boys in high school. Girls in elementary school spend more time studying than boys, are less likely to misbehave than boys, and get better grades than boys across all major subjects. “For decades, guys have been less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to enroll in college immediately, and less likely to finish college and earn a diploma,” Reeves told me. “There is a linear educational trajectory for girls and women. Boys and men tend to zigzag their way through adolescence.”

Sociologists and cultural critics have taken many dubious stabs at why the gender gap in education is growing. Some have blamed the feminist dogma of the education system and the inherently distracting presence of girls in classrooms. I don’t put much stock in those explanations.

The story I prefer begins with the economy. For much of the 20th century, men without any college education could expect to earn a middle-class salary in fields such as manufacturing and mining. In the 1970s, the share of the labor force working in these brawny industries declined. But men—especially in poor areas where college attainment is low and may even be falling—have struggled to adapt to a 21st century economy, where a high school diploma alone is often insufficient to earn a middle-class wage.

The sociologist Kathryn Edin has written that men without college degrees in deindustrialized America have been adrift for decades. They face the simultaneous shocks of lost jobs, disintegrating nuclear families, and rising deaths of despair in their communities. As 20th-century institutions have crumbled around them, these men have withdrawn from organized religion. Their marriage rates have fallen in lockstep with their church attendance. Far from the ordered progression of the mid-century American archetype—marriage, career, house and yard—men without college degrees are more likely to live what Edin and other researchers call “haphazard” lives, detached from family, faith, and work.

This male haphazardness might be reproducing itself among younger generations of men who lack stable role models to point the way to college. Single-parent households have grown significantly more common in the past half century, and 80 percent of those are headed by mothers. This is in part because men are more likely to be incarcerated; more than 90 percent of federal inmates, for example, are men. Men are also less likely to be fixtures of boys’ elementary-school experience; about 75 percent of public-school teachers are female. Suggesting that women can’t teach boys would be absurd. But the absence of male teachers might be part of a broader absence of men in low-income areas who can model the path to college for boys who are looking for direction.

This argument might sound pretty touchy-feely. But some empirical research backs it. A 2018 study of social mobility and race led by the Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that income inequality between Black and white Americans was disproportionately driven by bad outcomes for Black boys. The few neighborhoods where Black and white boys grew up to have similar adult outcomes were low-poverty areas that also had high levels of “father presence.” That is, even boys without a father at home saw significantly more upward mobility when their neighborhood had a large number of fathers present. High-poverty areas without fathers present seem to be doubly impoverished, and boys who live in these neighborhoods are less likely to achieve the milestones, such as college attendance, that lead to a middle-class salary or better.

The college gender gap is happening not just in the U.S. but in a range of upper- and middle-income countries, including France, Slovenia, Mexico, and Brazil. “In almost every rich country, women earn the majority of bachelor’s degrees,” Claudia Goldin, a historian and economics professor at Harvard University, told me. As a general rule, almost every country that gives men and women equal access to education discovers, within a few decades, that women are doing better.

The international nature of the gender gap invites biological explanations, which should be neither overstated nor categorically dismissed. Prominent psychologists, including Angela Duckworth, the author of Grit, have found that, while girls and boys have similar IQ scores, girls get better grades thanks to their superior self-control and ability to delay gratification. But that just begs the question of where girls’ superior self-control really comes from. Perhaps the fact that girls’ brains mature faster than boys’ gives them an early advantage in elementary school, which shapes the culture of success throughout their education. Perhaps subtle hormonal differences, particularly in testosterone levels, affect how boys perceive the risk of ending their education.

“Historically, men have been more likely to drop out of school to work in hot economies, whether it’s in the factories of World War II or the fracking mines of the Dakotas,” Goldin said. “I don’t know for sure if testosterone’s effect on impulsiveness and risk is the key player here, but men’s higher likelihood to drop out of college for perceived short-term gains in the labor force might tell us men are more likely to do risky things.” Neither Goldin nor anybody else I spoke with suggested that biological drivers of the gender gap ruled out the importance of culture or public policy. It is safer, I think, to say that some blend of variables—including economic, cultural, and biological factors—has created a scenario in which girls and women are more firmly attached to the education pipeline than men, in the U.S. and across the developed world.

The implications of the college gender gap for individual men are troubling but uncertain. “My biggest immediate worry is that men are making the wrong decision,” Goldin said. “I worry they’ll come to severely regret their choice if they realize the best jobs require a degree they never got.” There is also the issue of dating. College grads typically marry college grads. But this trend of associative mating will hit some turbulence, at least among heterosexual people; if present trends continue, the dating pool of college grads could include two women for every guy. As women spend more time in school and their male peers dwindle as a share of the college population, further delays in marriage and childbirth may ensue. That would further reduce U.S. fertility rates, which worries some commentators, albeit not all.

The most severe implications, I suspect, will be cultural and political. The U.S. electorate is already polarized by college and gender: Women and college graduates strongly favor Democrats, while men and people without college degrees lean Republican. Those divisions seem likely to worsen if the parties’ attitudes toward each other calcify into gender stereotypes. “My biggest worry is that by the time policy makers realize that gender inequality in college is a problem, we’ll have hit a point where college will seem deeply effeminate to some men in a way that will be hard to undo,” Reeves said. “That’s why we need both parties to offer a positive vision of college and a positive vision of masculinity. If male identity is seen, by some, as being at odds with education, that’s a problem for the whole country.”

The solutions to the college gender gap should be as broad as the causes. Specific policies to reduce childhood poverty could increase high-school graduation rates. Recruitment drives to advertise teaching jobs to men might help too. Monetary and fiscal policies that maximize employment and minimize poverty are likely to help men who might otherwise respond to unemployment by withdrawing from their families and communities; this, in turn, could help boys and young men stay in school.

The Wall Street Journal reports that some colleges are putting their finger on the scale for male applicants, to avoid having their schools become 70 percent female. But it’s a mistake to exclusively see the female-male gender gap as a college problem. If we wait until college to intervene, it’s too late,” says Thomas Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. “The pivot point is in adolescence, and the foundation is laid in the early grades.” This gender gap is an economic story, a cultural story, a criminal-justice story, and a family-structure story that begins to unfold in elementary school. The attention-grabbing statistic that barely 40 percent of college grads are men seems to cry out for an immediate policy response. But rather than dial up male attendance one college-admissions department at a time, policy makers should think about the social forces that make the statistic inevitable.