Volume XIII | Issue 2 | Fall 2013
In the film American Graffiti, two young men, recent high school graduates, mull their decision about college. The character Steve (Ron Howard) decides not to go. Photo: Universal Pictures, used with permission

Fewer men on campus

In the mid-1990s, women surpassed men in getting a college degree

The coming-of-age film American Graffiti provides a nostalgic portrait of teenage life in 1962. The movie follows two recent high school graduates and longtime friends, Curt and Steve, on their final night in their hometown of Modesto, Calif. They are both set to leave for an Eastern college in the morning. Curt has misgivings about leaving, but by movie’s end, he is headed East.  

The character of Curt could be a stand-in for many young men of the era. In the 1960s the number of men graduating from college significantly outnumbered women. 

 men are the minority on college campuses nationwide

The character of Steve is more representative of today’s young men. At the end of the movie, he stays home. 

The percentage of men attending college rose quickly through the mid-1970s. But by 1995 women had closed the gap, and by 2010 women’s college attainment rate exceeded men’s by 8 percentage points. Today, men are the minority on college campuses nationwide. 

Denise Callahan, director of Scholarship Programs at The Ford Family Foundation, says her office sees the national trend mirrored in its scholarship applicants. Last year, 37% of the total 5,595 applicants for the Ford Scholars program were male, and 36% of the total 120 Ford Scholars were male.

Why the disparity? The reasons are not clearly understood, but Callahan says coming from a working-class background, rural or urban, plays a role. “Culturally, in working-class families, ‘getting something done’ is considered masculine. If young men are a key provider for their family, it’s a luxury to attend college,” she says.

The “get-it-done” approach reflects a transactional form of leadership, which is more common in men (see “Leveraging Strengths”). “Boys tend to be more short-term goal oriented rather than long-term,” Callahan says.

Researchers widely acknowledge that women are more holistic. They lead through a transformational style, which involves looking beyond facts to consider values, vision, and relationships. As a result, Callahan says girls make the transition to the ritual and structure of new institutions (like college) easier, building new relationships more quickly. Boys tend to want more familiarity with a built-in structure and peer network.

Boys also mature later. According to neuroscientist Dr. Sandra Aamodt, former editor-in-chief of Nature Neuroscience, brain scans show clearly that the brain is not fully developed until about age 25. In particular, the prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed. That’s the part of the brain that helps young people inhibit impulses and to plan and organize their behavior to reach a goal, such as a college degree. Females’ brains develop on average about two years earlier than male brains, Aamodt says.  

Widening gap

In his article “Ten Reasons Why Men Aren’t Going to College,” James Shelley, director of the Men’s Resource Center in Lakeland Community College, writes the gap continues to widen at college graduation, with 57% of undergraduate degrees going to women and 43% to men.

Shelley says that the draw of a “good job” out of high school often pulls boys off the education track and puts them to work in traditional blue-collar jobs — jobs that are increasingly going away or being shipped overseas. 

The value of higher education is measurable. U.S. Census Bureau data show that, as of 2007, Oregonians with just some college earned an average of $13,000 more annually than those without a high school diploma. Those with associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees had even higher annual incomes.

The gender gap is also striking among high school dropouts. Despite graduation rates being the highest they have been since 1974, boys had a higher dropout rate than girls in every state. The Oregon high school class of 2012 graduated 68% of its students; California graduated 76%. 

What to do

Back at The Ford Family Foundation Scholarship Office, Callahan says she believes a number of factors could be addressed to begin changing the way young men think about education and college. Identifying mentors and the long-term benefits may be helpful in getting boys to shift their focus to a more distant, educated future.

The Scholarship Office stays in close touch with its Scholars to help keep them on track. A peer-mentor program matches new recipients with current Scholars at their colleges. 

The Scholarship Office also has implemented an emotional quotient inventory assessment. The 133-question survey reveals where a student might stumble based on behavior tendencies. Research indicates a significant positive relationship between emotional intelligence skills and academic success.

Shamra Clark, a student success counselor in the Scholarship Office, says there are no significant differences between the men and women who chose to take the test, but she has noticed males tend to score lower in the area of impulse control.

“The assessment gives students a much bigger awareness of how they respond and react,” Callahan says. “It’s another way we can make sure we put together the best possible support so the student we fund — male or female — is as successful as possible.”

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