Women worked hard throughout much of the 20th century to gain fair representation in college classrooms. But just as we began to celebrate the fact that women were achieving parity in the classroom, a troubling phenomenon started to become evident: Men of traditional college age were increasingly checking out of higher education.
According to U.S. Department of Education statistics, the proportion of bachelor's degrees awarded to males has dropped from 51 percent in 1980 to 44.9 percent in 1996. And this trend does not appear to be particularly selective--it applies to men across the country and in every category of ethnicity and race. (If we look at statistics, the men in the African American and Latino communities are the hardest hit.)
Thomas Mortenson, a higher education policy analyst, reported that if the long-term enrollment trend is projected to 2008, males will earn only 42 percent of all bachelor's degrees. If the trend were to continue, the last male to be awarded a bachelor's degree would receive it in the spring of 2067.
Daughters not only have leveled the playing field in most college classrooms, but they are exceeding their brothers in school success across the board.
Despite sporadic reporting, this potential crisis is well below the radar screen of educators and the public alike. While women's educational gains must never be lost, there are important reasons a gender imbalance in our college classrooms should be of interest to us all.
Historically, college campuses have been laboratories for civic engagement, a setting where students can acknowledge and honor each others' voices and a place where they can experiment with, recognize and practice community values. It does not bode well for the future of our nation if males are absent from this training ground.
Why aren't more young men seeking a college degree? Some question whether our primary and secondary education systems, now dominated by female educators, are designed for female success and male disengagement. High school graduation rates for males are now lower than for females, and significantly more males are enrolled in special education classes. And as family structure has changed, more children are growing up in single-parent households absent a father--a male role model.
A slice of this trend may also be attributed to a booming economy and a technology revolution that has provided unprecedented high-income opportunities for those with or without a college degree. More men than women are opting for these jobs. But will these well-paid technology wizards be prepared for the moral and ethical implications of new technology absent a college education?
Business leaders already have cause for concern. As one CEO said recently, "We really get in trouble when these techies who have had no broad-based education get promoted into managerial roles. They just can't handle the complexities and generally top out." In contrast, a typical college education--especially in liberal arts institutions--requires students to take courses beyond the hard sciences to help build these essential writing, speaking and interpersonal skills.
We need to recognize that this growing imbalance in colleges is a serious issue; it is not an insignificant statistical anomaly. The trend has been building for decades. While we must continue to support the advancement of women, we must also foster support and a climate of expectation for young men to create a society of equity.
We need to ask a critical question: Do boys learn differently from girls? If they do, what are the implications for our classrooms? How can we respond to the needs of boys and also to the needs of girls who may have a different learning style?
Finally, we need to provide the same kind of marketing effort for boys that we launched for girls to encourage them to attend college.
Technological needs, public skepticism of colleges and universities, and access for all qualified students are all major issues facing the academy. But those are issues that are being acted on. Men's steadily declining enrollment in higher education is going virtually unnoticed.
The writer is president of Goucher College in Baltimore.