The College Gender Drift

While the media and most observers of higher education these days have concentrated their concerns on the increasing competition to gain admission to a quality institution and to find the means to pay for rising tuitions, another significant trend has occurred with much less fanfare, namely the larger proportion of women than men enrolling in college and attaining degrees. For the first time in the history of American higher education, women outnumber men on four-year campuses by a wide margin. In 2003, 712,000 women earned a Bachelor's degree, compared to 531,000 men. More women than men received two-year Associate degrees. 274,000 women received Master's degrees, compared to 194,000 men. Present undergraduate enrollments and the ratio of high school graduating students indicate that this disparity will continue to grow.

This phenomenon represents an academic revolution when one considers that it was not too long ago that far fewer women attended college at all and many of the elite colleges admitted only men. There are a number of conjectures as to why this gender shift has occurred and what the implications will be for the future of our society and individual graduates. In the first instance, we believe that young women are maturing earlier than their male counterparts and thus tend to achieve academically at a higher level at an earlier age. As more public and private colleges have been become more selective for admissions, a greater number of young women present a more impressive academic, and often leadership, profile to admissions committees.

Two-thirds of four-year college students enroll in public universities, which put greater emphasis on statistical qualifications — high school grade point average, quality of courses taken, class rank, and test scores — in selecting their entering class. The result is that a higher percentage of women are accepted. Some of the flagship state university campuses now have an imbalance of 60/40 women to men on campus. The cultural shifts that began a generation ago and which generated greater freedom and opportunities for women of all ages have encouraged and empowered the present generation of young women to set their sights on personal independence and professional careers, with a college and graduate school education being the means to such ends. It is no longer a question of whether a woman will become an educated professional but rather which career direction she will choose.

Another factor in play is the extraordinary explosion of technological knowledge and the expanding opportunities for careers this has created. It is only in the fields of physical sciences and engineering that men still outnumber women in degrees achieved. Many young men are attracted to jobs in the technical fields directly out of high school and thus decide to bypass a college education. Of great concern is the even greater gap between young men and women of color and economically disadvantaged backgrounds who enroll in college today. The spiraling costs have persuaded many young males that a college diploma is beyond their reach, that it is safer to take a job once they graduate from high school; and a small proportion of poor students completes high school, thus eliminating the possibility of attending college.

What does all this mean? In the short term female students considering college should be aware of the population mix on the campuses of interest to them and the social environment this creates. On some campuses the relative shortage of men may make relationships difficult to establish. It is understood on a number of campuses that a woman has to play the stereotypical "dumbing down" role in order to have an active social life. Or women must be highly successful academically, and simultaneously face significant social pressures to be attractive and athletic in order to fit in. Another major issue concerns the availability of courses and programs of interest to women. While the institution may have more women than men enrolled, it does not automatically follow that the major fields of study are those many women might want to pursue.

In the longer term, employers in both the public and private sectors of our economy must recognize that more women will be seeking employment and, over time, leadership roles that in the past were reserved for men. Well-educated and ambitious women are a major force today in leadership roles in business, medicine, government, media, and social and educational sectors. Those who are presently in the position of screening and hiring employees must recognize this demographic gender shift and help make their organization's environment receptive and adaptable to the talents, ambitions, and the particular needs of this growing force in our society. And all sectors of our society need to join forces to assist disadvantaged youth of both genders in making the transition from high school to college so that they, too, will take their places as educated and independent citizens.