TCS Daily

Where the Boys Aren't

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - September 27, 2005 12:00 AM

I like to walk around campus on nice days, and sometimes I take pictures. When I post them on my blog, people always comment on the number of women in them. But, in fact, that's a pretty accurate reflection of what college campuses look like these days. (Fellow photoblogging professor Ann Althouse has  noticed the same thing.)


Last week, an article in USA Today underscored that this imbalance in favor of women isn't just an impression, but fact:


Currently, 135 women receive bachelor's degrees for every 100 men. That gender imbalance will widen in the coming years, according to a new report by the U.S. Department of Education.


This is ominous for every parent with a male child. The decline in college attendance means many will needlessly miss out on success in life. The loss of educated workers also means the country will be less able to compete economically. The social implications -- women having a hard time finding equally educated mates -- are already beginning to play out.


But the inequity has yet to provoke the kind of response that finally opened opportunities for women a generation ago. In fact, virtually no one is exploring the obvious questions: What has gone wrong? And what happens to all the boys who aren't in college?


Some of them, of course, get good-paying jobs that don't require a college degree. Plumbers, electricians, and building contractors face their own sets of barriers, but they don't need a college degree. (And, as an upside, those jobs aren't likely to be outsourced.) Still, it seems to me that there are three possible ways of looking at the growing higher-education gender imbalance.


One would be to treat it the way we treat other "underrepresentation" issues in higher education: By wondering what universities are doing wrong. There seems little doubt that universities have become less male-friendly in recent decades, to the point of being downright unfriendly in many cases. The kind of statements that are routinely made about males and masculinity in classrooms and hallways would get professors fired if they were made about blacks, gays, or many other groups. Sexual-harassment policies start with the presumption that men are guilty, and inherently depraved. And colleges now come at the tail-end of an educational system that is (compared to previous decades) anti-male from kindergarten on, meaning many males probably just want to get out as soon as they can.


The remedy, in this view: Affirmative action for male candidates, re-education for faculty, campus "men's centers" to match the womens' centers that were created when women were an underrepresented group on campus (and which still remain today almost everywhere), and efforts to make curricula, dormitories, and recruiting more male-friendly. (Right now, though we see lots of courses on literature by and about women, courses on literature by and about men are regarded as too narrow.") There seems little doubt that if any other group were suffering similar declines in college attendance, this is precisely the approach we'd be seeing, and some schools have already been trying this to some degree.


The second approach would be to shrug the problem off. Men aren't going to college as much? Big deal. Maybe it's because women are smarter, or better suited to such things.


Harvard President Larry Summers got his head handed to him when he raised similar factors as an explanation for why women are underrepresented in the hard sciences. But genetic explanations of gender differences are always socially acceptable so long as they posit male inferiority, so I suspect we'll see somewhat more people offering this sort of explanation -- though it may prove awkward when people point out the contradictions.


The third possibility is that men aren't so much underrepresented in college as women are overrepresented. This is plausible. There probably are too many people going to college in general, and it may be that men -- more likely to choose, or at least consider, high-paying but unfeminine alternatives like plumbing, or other, more "masculine" alternatives like military service -- are less likely to wind up in college as an unthinking extension of high school. If this explanation is true, we can expect to hear little about it from university administrations, who have fully absorbed the marketer's ethos and have little interest in suggesting that college isn't for everyone.


I would suggest, though, that the issue is of national import, and deserves more attention. As Larry Summers noted -- to his chagrin, but accurately nonetheless -- the hard sciences are still a largely male area (though they're managing to chase many men away, too), and there's not much prospect of more women getting involved. If men in general are reluctant to enter higher education, then the growing shortage of American-born scientists and engineers (noted by Ray Kurzweil here) is likely to get worse. This is likely to have significant national security implications.


Who knows? Maybe congressional hearings are in the offing. Perhaps they should be.


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