Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The "Boy Crisis" in American Higher Education

Sunday's New York Times ran a stimulating piece on the "boy crisis" at America's colleges and universities. According to current data from the U.S. Department of Education, men are less likely than women to graduate with a Bachelor's degree, they take longer to complete their schooling, and do less well in their classes. There is some scholarly consensus that the difficulties men face have origins in childhood, where differences across the genders are seen relatively early in life. Here's a passage from the article, discussing the changing college fortunes of men in recent years:

A quarter-century after women became the majority on college campuses, men are trailing them in more than just enrollment. Department of Education statistics show that men, whatever their race or socioeconomic group, are less likely than women to get bachelor's degrees — and among those who do, fewer complete their degrees in four or five years. Men also get worse grades than women.

And in two national studies, college men reported that they studied less and socialized more than their female classmates. Small wonder, then, that at elite institutions like Harvard, small liberal arts colleges like Dickinson, huge public universities like the University of Wisconsin and U.C.L.A. and smaller ones like Florida Atlantic University, women are walking off with a disproportionate share of the honors degrees. It is not that men are in a downward spiral: they are going to college in greater numbers and are more likely to graduate than two decades ago.

Still, men now make up only 42 percent of the nation's college students. And with sex discrimination fading and their job opportunities widening, women are coming on much stronger, often leapfrogging the men to the academic finish. "The boys are about where they were 30 years ago, but the girls are just on a tear, doing much, much better," said Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington.

Take Jen Smyers, who has been a powerhouse in her three years at American University in Washington.

She has a dean's scholarship, has held four internships and three jobs in her time at American, made the dean's list almost every term and also led the campus women's initiative. And when the rest of her class graduates with bachelor's degrees next year, Ms. Smyers will be finishing her master's. She says her intense motivation is not so unusual. "The women here are on fire," she said.

The gender differences are not uniform. In the highest-income families, men 24 and under attend college as much as, or slightly more than, their sisters, according to the American Council on Education, whose report on these issues is scheduled for release this week. Young men from low-income families, which are disproportionately black and Hispanic, are the most underrepresented on campus, though in middle-income families too, more daughters than sons attend college. In recent years the gender gap has been widening, especially among low-income whites and Hispanics.

When it comes to earning bachelor's degrees, the gender gap is smaller than the gap between whites and blacks or Hispanics, federal data shows. All of this has helped set off intense debate over whether these trends show a worrisome achievement gap between men and women or whether the concern should instead be directed toward the educational difficulties of poor boys, black, white or Hispanic.
Read the whole piece. The Education Department data confirms a trend in women's progress that has building for a while, and the emerging gap in success across the sexes raises a host of questions involving gender equality and civil rights. Women have long struggled for equality under the law in the United States. But as the article points out, women have done so well since the civil rights revolution and the feminist movement, that some fear a deep structural change in the U.S. demography, with perhaps the development of a large surplus of less well-educated men relative to women.

Note, though, that this is not a new discussion, and in fact there has been some interesting work done in journalism and scholarship suggesting that some of the changes in gender equality in the educational system amount to a "
war against boys." Business Week, back in 2003, published "The New Gender Gap," with the article's subtitle saying, "from kindergarten to grad school, boys are becoming the second sex":

It may still be a man's world. But it is no longer, in any way, a boy's. From his first days in school, an average boy is already developmentally two years behind the girls in reading and writing. Yet he's often expected to learn the same things in the same way in the same amount of time. While every nerve in his body tells him to run, he has to sit still and listen for almost eight hours a day. Biologically, he needs about four recesses a day, but he's lucky if he gets one, since some lawsuit-leery schools have banned them altogether. Hug a girl, and he could be labeled a "toucher" and swiftly suspended -- a result of what some say is an increasingly anti-boy culture that pathologizes their behavior.

If he falls behind, he's apt to be shipped off to special ed, where he'll find that more than 70% of his classmates are also boys. Squirm, clown, or interrupt, and he is four times as likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. That often leads to being forced to take Ritalin or risk being expelled, sent to special ed, or having parents accused of negligence. One study of public schools in Fairfax County, Va., found that more than 20% of upper-middle-class white boys were taking Ritalin-like drugs by fifth grade.

Once a boy makes it to freshman year of high school, he's at greater risk of falling even further behind in grades, extracurricular activities, and advanced placement. Not even science and math remain his bastions. And while the girls are busy working on sweeping the honor roll at graduation, a boy is more likely to be bulking up in the weight room to enhance his steroid-fed Adonis complex, playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City on his PlayStation2, or downloading rapper 50 Cent on his iPod. All the while, he's 30% more likely to drop out, 85% more likely to commit murder, and four to six times more likely to kill himself, with boy suicides tripling since 1970. "We get a bad rap," says Steven Covington, a sophomore at Ottumwa High School in Ottumwa, Iowa. "Society says we can't be trusted."

As for college -- well, let's just say this: At least it's easier for the guys who get there to find a date. For 350 years, men outnumbered women on college campuses. Now, in every state, every income bracket, every racial and ethnic group, and most industrialized Western nations, women reign, earning an average 57% of all BAs and 58% of all master's degrees in the U.S. alone. There are 133 girls getting BAs for every 100 guys -- a number that's projected to grow to 142 women per 100 men by 2010, according to the U.S. Education Dept. If current trends continue, demographers say, there will be 156 women per 100 men earning degrees by 2020.

Overall, more boys and girls are in college than a generation ago. But when adjusted for population growth, the percentage of boys entering college, master's programs, and most doctoral programs -- except for PhDs in fields like engineering and computer science -- has mostly stalled out, whereas for women it has continued to rise across the board. The trend is most pronounced among Hispanics, African Americans, and those from low-income families....

The trouble isn't limited to school. Once a young man is out of the house, he's more likely than his sister to boomerang back home and sponge off his mom and dad. It all adds up to the fact that before he reaches adulthood, a young man is more likely than he was 30 years ago to end up in the new and growing class of underachiever -- what the British call the "sink group."
Newsweek Magazine also had a story on this in January. Hat tip to Laurie Bagby, Associate Professor of Political Science at Kansas State University, for some of the sources for this post. (Bagby published an important article on Thucydides and international relations back in 1994.)


Paul Penafiel said...

It will just a matter of time when the world will have female leaders with completely different policial views. If you ask me, it's about bloody time that women take charge, as men had their turn and not doing a good job at it.

Donald Douglas said...

Thanks for visiting, Paul!

Anonymous said...

I agree, Paul.

Donald, I would like your opinion on how you think education is valued in our country, both in the government and in the general public. What do you think has changed/is changing? Has the internet really changed how people access information effectively or has it given the lazy an out?

I noticed your comments at a certain eye-roller of a site, the Martian Anthropologist and I agree with you; his claims are way out in left field. The two sources he linked are far from reputable.

Is this the standard in education today? Are we going to produce people like him and Ann Coulter who ineptly wield the weapons of rhetoric for the satisfaction of their own empty egos? Or do you think students are listening and taking care to carefully approach controversy?

What is your experience in the classroom?

Donald Douglas said...

Hi J. Bruno:

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Let me try to respond as best I can to your queries.

1) I think the Internet has the potential to revolutionize just about everything we do with information and learning. We're just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of change in the political system from all the various online activities, such as sharing information, campaign related issues, and so forth. As for education, college schooling's probably more valued than ever before in this country, at least if you pay attention to all the emphasis on the "college admissions game," and what that says about upward mobility in the U.S. Things are different lower down the socioeconomic spectrum, in terms of access to educational opportunity and so forth. But there's no doubt that most families at all income levels realize the importance of college in economic attainment today. More on that later.

2) As for the far-out, leftist ideology that's out there on the web. Well, that type of sentiment is pretty prevalent, but it depends on how you look at it. A lot of bloggers on the traffic exchanges are politically-liberal and anti-Bush, etc. (though Martian Anthropology is just one of the dumbest blogs around). There's probably thousands of right-wing blog and websites that aren't seen through exchanges, but are very important in networks of conservative commentators and activists.

3) As for in the classroom? Left-wing, multicultural ideology is probably the majority perspective among college and unversity professor today. There have been a couple of recent polls on this, one finding as high as 9 out of 10 professors identifying as liberal or pro-Democratic Party (I can't remember the source, but you might find it on Google). For me, I don't mind political liberals (I'm liberal on some issues myself). It's the anti-Americanism I can't stand, not to mention the pure ignorance and stupidity that's prevalent among those that hold these views. Professors who indoctrinate their students regarding American "imperialism" in the Middle East and elsewhere, the "racist" structures of society," and so forth, aren't doing their charges any favors by filling them with junk ideas. But people have to learn for themselves. Sooner or later most people realize that American society and politics work pretty well, and how well one does in life depends largely in individual factors such as hard work or innate intelligence. I think there's something of a backlash against liberal indoctrination around the country, in any case. One reads about it in the news, and I hear it from my students.

Take care.