Flash back to the 1970s. Even with female-dominated departments such as education and nursing, men are still the majority in America’s college classrooms—56 percent, compared with 44 percent women. Over time, though, a variety of factors begin influencing this makeup: The women’s liberation movement roars, single mothers searching for greater incomes head back to school, stay-at-home moms shun tradition in favor of turning their families into dual-earner households.
More and more males, meanwhile, become high school dropouts. Others get swept up in the Bill Gates Syndrome, a phenomenon named for the Microsoft CEO and college dropout that pulls men toward high-tech, high-paying jobs that require little or no higher education.
Fast forward to 2001. The gender gap is now completely reversed—56 percent of all college students are now women, 44 percent are men. At some schools, from Fordham University in New York to the University of California-Santa Cruz, the ratio of women to men is as high as 6:1.
“The idea of women as disadvantaged in higher education was once true, but it’s certainly not the case any longer,” says Thomas Mortenson, a higher education policy analyst with the Center for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington, D.C. “If it was a problem for women 30 years ago, it should be considered a problem for men today.”
Should we be applauding the success of women or lamenting the failure of men? Both, say experts. David Kalsbeek, a former Xavier administrator and now vice president for enrollment management at DePaul University in Chicago, calls the hoopla “somewhat misplaced. In some ways, what has happened is the outcome of progress on other fronts,” he says. “For example, for decades educators have been concerned about the low number of women represented in math, science and technology fields, which have always been male-dominated disciplines. As we aggressively address that problem, we may contribute to the broader gender imbalance. This may just be an excellent example of how yesterday’s solutions often create today’s problems.”
Mortenson argues otherwise, insisting that the imbalance is more troublesome than it appears. He found that between 1975 and 1998, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to females increased 59 percent, while the number awarded to males grew just 3 percent.
“In effect, 94 percent of the growth was earned by females,” he says. “Just 6 percent was earned by males.”
This disparity is creating a variety of challenges for colleges everywhere, says Marc Camille, Xavier’s dean of admission. “We’ve felt the pinch here at Xavier,” he says. “Many clubs and social organizations are dominated by females. We’ve needed additional space in our residence halls for women. And we can also run into problems with gender equity in our athletic programs.”
Most admission experts, Camille included, believe the problem will eventually work itself out. “Because people nationwide are discussing it, positive dialogue is occurring. I also believe the changing economy will impact the enrollment trend for both sexes, but certainly for men,” says Camille. “Men and women alike will once again realize, ‘I do need that degree for long-term job security, advancement and satisfaction.’ ”
Some colleges are taking proactive measures just in case. At Fordham, for example, recruiters stress small classes and personal attention to female applicants. When recruiting male students, they emphasize internships and athletics. Camille sees no such cause for alarm at Xavier, where the trend is beginning to reverse on its own. In 1999, the University’s most lopsided year in terms of gender balance, just 39.7 percent of the incoming students were male. In 2000, males comprised 43.8 percent of the incoming class, reversing a six-year downturn. This year, the incoming freshman class will be roughly 45 percent male, which is the highest per- centage the University has enrolled since 1994.
“We have outstanding academics and successful athletic programs for both genders, our proximity to the city of Cincinnati is a positive, we offer internships and hands-on experience, and we have great social opportunities,” says Camille. “Our message is attractive to both women and men. We’re definitely keeping pace.”
Illustration by Pol Turgeon