Here’s a fact that has received little attention. On American college campuses, the ratio of women to men is approaching 60 – 40. Of every 100 students who entered college last fall, 58 were women. That isn’t a one-year anomaly either. The trend of more women and fewer men in college has been going on for decades.
UNC-Chapel Hill is typical. The incoming class of 2010 was only 41.6 percent male. Although group statistical disparities usually set college administrators into a frenzy of concern over “fairness,” and “social justice,” this one elicits only yawns. Stephen Farmer, director of undergraduate admissions at Chapel Hill says, “We really have made no attempt to balance the class. We are gender blind in applications, very scrupulously so.”
The administrators in Chapel Hill (and at most other colleges and universities) aren’t worried about the increasing dominance of women on campus, but there isn’t any reason why it should concern us? I think the answer is both no – and yes.
No, because the common idea that among any large population, like student bodies, we should expect to see all groups of people proportionally represented is mistaken. People make decisions as individuals, each person trying to do whatever is best for himself given his particular circumstances. Young adults who decide to enroll in college – or not to – make that choice carefully. That being the case, there is any “right” percentage for groups. With each individual presumably making an intelligent decision, the overall balance among groups simply doesn’t matter.
But wait a minute. Since male students are far more likely to go into crucial fields like science and engineering, shouldn’t we worry that the U.S. will face a shortage of scientists and engineers in the future?
Not really. That is because the set of young men who are not going to college doesn’t intersect with the set of young men who are interested in math and science. The chance that any non-college guy would have studied those hard disciplines and then gone on to work in math, science, or engineering is just about zero.
A college degree is not a good investment for everyone. Many young people who graduate from high school these days have weak academic skills – as the recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy shows – and little interest in scholarly pursuits. Most of them do go to college, at least for a little while, but that doesn’t do them much good. A large number of college graduates end up taking “high school” jobs after their four or more years of college.
It may be the case that the labor market has more attractive jobs for young men who don’t have college degrees than for young women. A young man can earn rather good money in construction work, auto mechanics, truck driving, among other jobs. If more men than women decide that pursuing some vocation is preferable to years of college followed by the possibility of under-employment, it’s hard to regard that as a problem.
Although the ratio of men to women in college is not a problem in and of itself, I think it is indicative of a problem.
For years, there has been a movement in American K-12 education that is built upon the notion that schools must try to make boys more like girls. Christina Hoff Sommers, author of the excellent book The War Against Boys calls it the “feminization” of education. The core idea is that most of the world’s problems stem from predominantly male traits such as aggression and competition and the solution is to socialize boys to be more cooperative and nurturing, like girls.
Some of the implications of that theory are that reading material that might appeal to boys (e.g., stories involving adventure or conflict) must be replaced with material that conveys “better” messages. Competition is also reduced or eliminated, as by having students do group projects rather than working individually. Even the games kids play during recess have to be controlled to make sure that they don’t reinforce all those bad latent tendencies in boys.
The result of all this is to make school a lot less interesting for boys. Of course, many still do well, but the tendency is to cause marginal students to lose interest. Far more boys than girls get bored with school and drop out. The feminization of education has much to do with that.
So the dominance of women on campus may be alerting us to a serious problem – the fact that early education is turning many boys off from making the most of the chance to develop their minds.
George Leef is the executive director of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in North Carolina.