A couple of years ago, I noticed that my older son, then in high school, was looking at some colleges where the young women vastly outnumbered the young men.
It was interesting to me that some (mostly smaller) schools now enroll two female students for every male.
When I take a step back, the trend toward female supermajorities at more and more colleges and universities seems worrisome. What does it mean for future workplaces? For families? For politics?
As the father of two sons, I'm growing more and more concerned about the educational future of young men.
If it was undesirable decades ago when vastly more men went to college than women, why wouldn't the reverse be problematic now? According to the Journal of Economic Perspectives, in 1947 "undergraduate men outnumbered women 2.3 to 1" in America.
Edging toward an America where there are twice as many women as men with fresh college degrees seems at least sub-optimal for a national economy that needs more, not fewer, highly educated workers.
When my friends in higher-ed talk about pushing for more diversity and inclusion on campus, they may not be picturing recruiting more male students. But perhaps they should be.
A few weeks ago the Wall Street Journal published an article that has gotten a lot of attention (and rebuttal). It was headlined: "A Generation of American Men Give Up on College." In a nutshell, the piece said "the number of men enrolled at two- and four-year colleges has fallen behind women by record levels, in a widening education gap across the U.S."
The trend numbers are stark. Although they vary greatly from campus to campus, the overall ratio of women to men at the end of the last school year was 59.5% women, 40.5% men, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Why don't we hear more about this?
Well, perhaps because it has happened over decades, and it is apparently not tied to any overt discrimination against men. It's just that more young men over the years have decided to bypass college: Their choice, free country, nothing here to see here, some say.
Some have theorized, though, that educational institutions have become subtly inhospitable to men. Some have noted it starts in K-12 education where boys are more likely to be diagnosed with conditions such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and are subsequently medicated and counseled to become more compliant students. When the chance comes to flee the system, many boys take it, the theory goes.
I teach a writing class at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga that's more than 80% female. (In fairness, some courses in other departments are predominantly male, I'm told.) I asked my group the other day if they were concerned about this "declining male enrollment" trend.
Most of the women in the class said, no, they are not very concerned.
Young men have traditionally had more vocational choices, they said. Plus, this is just the culture resetting after years of male-female imbalance, the women insisted. Men still make more money on average in the workplace and are over-represented in higher-ed and business leadership. Get back to us when we fix all that, they seemed to be saying.
"OK. That makes sense," I thought. "But still "
Men who eschew college take a hit to lifetime earnings as "over the course of their working lives, American college graduates earn more than a million dollars beyond those with only a high school diploma," the Wall Street Journal points out.
I don't remember any strong responses from the guys in my class about the growing college gender imbalance, except the belief that, yes, young men might have more traditional (if stereotypical) vocational choices. And for many young men, high-paying jobs in the trades and no college debt sounds like a good deal in the short term, they said.
Meanwhile, at a UTC football game last week, my 14-year-old son sat beside me in the bleachers. During the halftime show, I turned and asked him a question.
"So is UTC on your list of possible colleges," I asked hopefully, having saved for college since he was a baby.
"Yes," he said. "But I'm also looking at becoming an electrician. I think I'd like it, and I think you can go to trade school for that."
I'm not taking sides here. I would be proud and happy to have a child become an electrician. Honestly, it might be a smart value proposition. I would also be happy if he decides to go to his hometown state university.
I'm just saying times are changing for young men. And for more and more boys who finish high school, going on to college is not their default first choice.
If the extent of this imbalance is news to you (as it was to me a couple of years ago), then maybe it's worth a broader conversation.
Email Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org.