More Women than Men are Becoming College-Educated
SOURCE:  San Diego Union Tribune, Aug. 31, 2003, pp. A12-A13

By: Susan Thompson, Knight Rider News Service

ST. LOUIS--The slide of male students to the rear of the college class went largely unnoticed during the past two decades, amid concern about the educational needs of women.  Only recently have researchers, authors and teachers begun to sound the alarm about what some see as a social time bomb in the making.

Many say boys' second-class graduation rate--42 percent--is the end result of educational neglect.  Questions such as why boys are falling behind in school and what can be done to bring them up to girls' speed are taking on urgency.

As education researcher Thomas G. Mortensen reads the college graduation statistics, men are in crisis.  "A growing share of men just aren't making it,"  he said.

"Women have won the war in education," said Mortensen, who has been drawing attention to this gender gap in higher education since the mid-1990's.  "It's over with."

He blames the nations gradual shift from a brawn to a brains economy.  "I think it's because (men) have lost their jobs in farming, they've lost their jobs in manufacturing, and they don't know what else to do."

THat, in his view, is just as problematic for woman, who "are not going to find similarly educated men to marry and share their lives with, because they're just not there."

A study presented in May to the Washington-based Business Roundtable by researchers at Northeastern University portrayed men as an emerging educational underclass.  As such, the study says, that could put a drag on the nation's productivity, economic growth and Social Security system and threaten the future of marriage, the stability of families and the welfare of children.

That's not to say that men aren't making educational progress.  Along with the nation's population in general, they graduate from both high school and college at generally greater rates than they used to.  It's just that in a come-from-behind move, unimaginable a generation ago, women have progressed faster, surpassing them.

Which raises the question: If young men of prime college age aren't in college, where are they?  Behind bars, for one place.  According to the latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 419,700 men between 18 and 24 are in state and federal prisons and local jails.  That's 16 times the number of their female contemporaries.

Among men in that age group who are neither incarcerated nor in school, nearly a quarter are unemployed or "not in the labor force," the Bureau of Labor Statistics term for those who neither have a job nor are looking for one.

The rest are working--and not necessarily at dead-end jobs, according to labor analyst Russell Signorino, who sees job prospects for young noncollege men as better than those for young noncollege women.  Manufacturing jobs haven't entirely dried up, he said.  As for other areas where men with just a high school education still earn living wages, Signorino cited construction, machining, tool-and-die making, maintenance, trucking, warehousing and sales.

"These jobs are open to women, but they're still male-dominated," said Signorino, who works for the United Way of Greater St. Louis.

To John Gaal, coordinator of the apprenticeship training program of the Carpenters District Council of St. Louis, the issue isn't so much men not going to college as women not taking advantage of the alternatives.  "Not enough women are aware of the opportunities that are available to them in these non-traditional occupations," he said.  "Therefore their default is college."

Nick Hegel, 21, and three years out of Gillespie High School in Gillespie, Ill., never wanted to be anything but a carpenter.  "I like to work outside," he said.  "I didn't think I could stand sitting in a classroom all that time."

As he finishes his second year of a carpentry apprenticeship program, he's earning $17 an hour while learning.  When he becomes a journeyman in two more years, he'll qualify for the union wage of $28 an hour.  "How many people make $28 an hour when they graduate from college?" he asks.

Preston R. Thomas, a counselor at Normandy High School in St. Louis, sees boys as more dedicated to money.  "Guys perceive themselves as having to be macho breadwinners," he said.  "What tends to happen is at an early age they feel a pressure to go out and earn money."

For the men interviewed for this story, money was typically the main reason for not staying in college.  The cost of college, fear of loans, the iffy job market for college graduates and their preferences for cash figured variously into their decisions.

Thomas has known high school boys who so give in to that money pressure that they take second jobs to pay the bills they rack up.  "Once you get into that cycle, it's hard to get out of that cycle," he said.

One way out is to drop out of high school, which boys do more than girls, diminishing their college-eligible numbers.

Ron Dunn, 23, just became "more focused" on work than on school.  While still in high school, he got a job as a deli worker, slicing roast beef.

"It was cool," he said.  "I dug it."  So much that he left school for it, a move he describes now as "a choice I shouldn't have made."


At the St. Louis Job Corps center, he has picked up his GED as well as skills in home building and cooking.  As for college, he said he's "all for it" and would like to go "to see what it's like."

Young men aren't holding back from college for lack of smarts.  A yet-to-be-published study by ACT shows that, all things being equal, high school boys and girls test equally well, said Jim Sconing, the educational testing service's director of statistical research.

At the upper end of the ACT score spectrum, boys and girls are equally likely to choose college, he said.  The gender gap opens "among students of moderate ability" where "females are more interested in going to college than males."

And yet it was little more than a decade ago when girls were widely considered the losers in schools where teachers favored boys, activities stressed competition and textbooks ignored women.  This was the gist of "How Schools Shortchange Girls," a study published to great popular press by the American Association of University Women in 1992.

If the system was stacked against them, girls were beating it even then.  For more than a century, according to the U.S. Department of Education, they had been graduating from high school at somewhat greater rates than boys.  And that year, after starting to pull ahead in 1980, women earned 54 percent of the nation's bachelor's degrees to men's 46 percent.

Now, seizing on the same supposed gender differences as the AAUW study, new and growing legions of advocates for boys are blaming schools for cheating boys.

Boys, they say, are up against it from the minute they set foot in kindergarten because they don't initially develop as fast as girls--emotionally, physically or intellectually--and aren't as self-disciplined.  They complain that elementary schools, with their overwhelming female teaching staffs, are decidedly boy-unfriendly, punishing them for being active and competitive and rewarding girls for being compliant and cooperative. 

Research shows that elementary school teachers like girls better than boys, said Arden Miller, professor of psychology at Southwest Missouri State University.  "The kinds of things that schools emphasize make them a more reinforcing environment for girls," he said.  "In school, students are expected to sit down and talk--the things that females do better and that can be problems for boys.  Boys just aren't as well-suited to an activity that is primarily verbal.

That's the main reason, advocates say, that boys are three times more likely than girls to be routed to special education and three or four times more likely to be labeled with attention-deficit disorder.

In high school, when they might be building their resumes for college, boys as a group are seriously slacking off.  This is true nationwide, even worldwide, worried experts say.

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