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Cover Story, US News & World Report, 2/8/99

Where the boys aren't
Women are a growing majority on campus. So what are men up to–and who's losing out?


Heels to Heaven, an a cappella group at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, needed to add a few baritones and basses as the 1996-97 school year opened. But deep voices are in short supply on a campus that is over 60 percent female. In its quest for low-end sounds, the group conducted a public relations blitz, plastering every dorm with signs declaring "Real Men Sing Loud!"

The campaign worked, and it doubtless will be tried again in the future: With females accounting for 61 percent of the university's pool of applicants, the gender gap at Chapel Hill is unlikely to close soon. "There is an obvious lack of guys on campus," sighs Catherine Brandt, a junior and former member of Heels to Heaven. "I don't know what to say about it other than they're not there."

They're not there at Seattle Pacific University, either, where the student body is 65 percent female. An annual freshman icebreaker called "Dickerella," in which women and men pair off for trips to a local burger joint named Dick's, has become a farce: "A lot of the guys have two dates," says Sarah Johnson, a senior.

Nor are they at Concordia College in St. Paul, Minn., which is 61 percent female. "If I'm about five minutes late for a class, when I walk in and look up, at least three quarters of the seats in my class are filled with girls," says junior Chad Nelson.

In short, they're not there across the country. This year, women are expected to earn just over 57 percent of all bachelor's degrees, compared with 43 percent in 1970 and under 24 percent in 1950. The U.S. Department of Education now projects that by 2008 women will outnumber men in undergraduate and graduate programs by 9.2 million to 6.9 million. The trend is moving quickly; if it continues at this pace, "the graduation line in the year 2068 will be all females," says Tom Mortenson, a higher-education policy analyst.

Armed with better grades, better résumés, and a clearer sense of future goals, many females reach the senior year of high school primed for the college admissions game. Males, meanwhile, are tempted by fast cash in a boom-time economy, preferring $30,000 starting salaries in such fields as air-conditioner maintenance and Web design to four years of Beowulf and student loans.

The growing split in post-secondary paths might do more to foster gender equality than any constitutional amendment or court decision. With an edge in education, women could close the salary gap and increasingly move into positions of power–as heads of corporations, presidents of universities, and political leaders.

But that's assuming higher education remains the key to upward mobility–a big "if," warn some, who foresee a time not too distant when degrees are not so prized, and skipping college might be a wiser career choice.

Past parity. Since women stepped into the majority on campuses in 1979, the college gender gap has widened at virtually every type of school: large and small, public and private, two-year and four-year. From the 23,617-student, state-run University of New Mexico (57 percent female) to 2,032-student, Catholic-affiliated Edgewood College in Wisconsin (73 percent female) to the mammoth University of California system (seven of the eight campuses have female majorities), women are flooding colleges and universities.

And where are the boys?

Logan Sieg, a 17-year-old senior at Gettysburg Area High School in Gettysburg, Pa., will be picking up his diploma this June. Come September, though, he won't be on a college campus. "I have enough money in the bank, and college would be a snap," he says. "But I have a car to pay for." Instead of pursuing a bachelor's degree, he plans on learning air-conditioner and heating system repair at a local technical institute; a friend's brother, a graduate of the trade school, made $10 an hour his first year out, plus generous overtime. While Sieg sees the value of high school math–"you need to know the volume of rooms, the circulation"–he says that other intellectual pursuits have little bearing on his career plans. "In academic English, all the teacher talks about is college prep, college prep," he moans. "I raise my hand: 'I'm not going to college, I'm going to technical school.' "

With unemployment at its lowest point in a generation, it's not surprising that some kids pass up four more years of classes. "It's easier to go out and get a job now than to do the hard work and stay in college," says Claudia Goldin, an economic historian at Harvard University. "For lots of people it's 'buy now, think later' "–a mind-set that can have severe consequences. Male college graduates earn, on average, over $23,000 a year more than men who have only high school diplomas, and that income disparity is growing. Nevertheless, boys are leading the charge into the workplace–they account for 57 percent of those ages 16 to 24 in the labor force who hold only a high-school diploma.

Where the boys are. "I know a lot of guys from my hometown who quit college to run their own store, or to have a Schwan's [food delivery] route, or to do some of these jobs where, for their age, they're getting paid really well," says Shawn Vogt, a junior at Hamline University's College of Liberal Arts in St. Paul. "That may not be the case once we all graduate from college . . . but at this point, they have high-paying jobs. And I don't know of any women in those positions."

A real growth industry for young men subscribing to the "less learning, more earning" credo is computers, where pay is high and the future bright. "If making money is your first goal, and if you are competent in high-paying skills, there's no reason to finish your degree," says Stephen Trachtenberg, president of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "We shouldn't be surprised by that. It's demonstrated to us on a regular basis by people who sign up with the NBA [National Basketball Association] or [by] baseball players." His son, a 1997 graduate of Columbia University, had a roommate who dropped out during his sophomore year to take a computer-related job. "By the time my son got his B.A., his former roommate was making $100,000 a year," says Trachtenberg.

Michael Rahimpour, 23, knows all about the fast money to be made in computers. The San Diego native has been designing Web sites since 1993. After bouncing around a few junior colleges, he dropped out after realizing that "the best education is given by corporations these days." He adds that "pretty much everyone I know is taking the route of not finishing college–it's just too attractive." It certainly is in Rahimpour's case: He pulls down $76,500 a year in base salary as the webmaster for PalmPilot-maker 3Com.

Computer companies are so desperate to snag fresh talent that many are actively recruiting high school seniors. Cisco Systems, for example, runs two-year classes in high schools that certify graduates to become network administrators. And Intel travels far and wide to snatch up workers for its chip-making plants; in Oregon, Portland-based recruiters often journey 217 miles southwest to Marshfield High School in Coos Bay to entice students to put off college in favor of a high-tech factory. Most of the workers Intel walks away with are boys; Walt Biddle, executive director of the Career Training Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports U.S. trade schools, estimates that two thirds of the people entering the information-technology industry are male.

Girls, meanwhile, are busy making themselves into strong candidates for admission to college. "They mature sooner, so they get more serious about their schoolwork," says Delsie Phillips, director of admissions at Haverford College in Haverford, Pa., echoing a near-unanimous sentiment among college officials. "It really shows up when you start reading applications. Girls have followed through and done all the things they are supposed to do, while boys are still trying to find themselves." Though girls do slightly worse than boys on standardized tests–in 1998, their mean score on the SAT was 7 points lower on the verbal section and 35 points lower on math–admissions officials say grades, class rank, and activities are given far more weight. Slightly outnumbered in the overall population of 15-to-19-year-olds, girls graduate from high school at a higher rate than boys; in 1996, 51.2 percent of high school graduates were female. Girls accounted for 53.5 percent of SAT takers that year, and 69.7 percent of female graduates enrolled in college within a year of graduating, compared with only 60.1 percent of boys.

Clearly, part of the trend in college enrollment stems from advances in society that have given women more choices: They are no longer expected to take the homemaker route or to matriculate solely for the purpose of earning their "M.R.S. degree": that is, a husband. "When I was a high school counselor 20 years ago, I had many parents say, 'I want my daughter to take home economics because she's just going to get married,' " says Nancy Perry, executive director of the American School Counselor Association. "Women believe they can achieve now, and they go for it."

This also brings a large number of older women to campus, especially to state universities that cater to "nontraditional" students. "A lot [of women] put off finishing college to follow a husband or because of families," says Michael O'Connor, director of enrollment services at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., which is 56 percent female. "Now they're re-entering the work force, and they need to be retrained."

A small pool. A particularly large gender gap among African-Americans, who make up about 11 percent of the nation's undergraduate population, also contributes to the skew. Nearly 63 percent of African-American undergraduates are women, and of the nation's 117 historically black colleges and universities, only one–all-male Morehouse College in Atlanta–has a majority of men. High dropout and incarceration rates are to blame for the discrepancy: In 1994, there were more African-American males in jail or prison than enrolled in college. "You've got fewer and fewer black males who are eligible for college," says Anthony Jones, director of admissions at Fisk University in Nashville, which is 71 percent female. "Then you have to find ones who meet Fisk's criteria, and it's a bit selective. We end up having to recruit from a very small pool."

But girls in general seem steps ahead long before college appears on the radar. As early as fourth grade, according to a Department of Education survey, they spend more time on homework than boys do, and they are less likely to zone out in front of the television for hours on end. More girls become high school newspaper editors, honor society members, and community service volunteers.

Male peer pressure, which often includes a strong anti-intellectual component, may also contribute to the trend. "I raised a boy, and I'm aware of the degree to which acting enthusiastic in your studies is not something that boys are encouraged to do," says Margaret Miller, president of the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE). "Being good in school is associated with femininity."

Some believe that educators on the elementary and secondary levels are not helping matters by fostering a bias toward girls. They argue that the tendency of boys to be rambunctious, to ignore directions, and to produce sloppy assignments draws the ire of teachers who prefer more well-behaved, manageable girls. Perry of the counselors' association agrees that young girls may do better in part because "they are more willing to comply with their teachers than boys; their papers are neater."

It is a theory that flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which for years has depicted classrooms as chilly places for girls. Judith Kleinfeld, a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks, attacked that viewpoint in a controversial paper last year, in which she concluded: "Males are . . . more apt than females to believe that the school climate is hostile to them, that teachers do not expect as much from them and give them less encouragement to do their best."

"It really begins early," says Mortenson. "The boys tend to be less focused." It is a "learning style" that can give teachers–70 percent of whom are female–fits. A disproportionate number of boys end up in special education–they account for over three quarters of the enrollment in programs for those with behavioral or developmental disorders. Boys also fail to finish high school at a far higher rate; between October 1995 and October 1996, they accounted for 58 percent of the nation's dropouts.

The new dating game. With boys a rarer on-campus sight, college social life has taken a new turn. A joke that makes the rounds at Seattle Pacific goes, "What's the difference between an SPU woman and a trash can? A trash can gets taken out once a week." At UNC-Chapel Hill, one recent alumna says, "The women develop eating disorders, and the men develop huge egos." Sorority sisters at UNC often outnumber fraternity brothers by 3 to 1 at Greek system parties. "The guys here notice that they're outnumbered, and they take advantage of it," says Meredith Gayle, a junior. "They date more girls, sometimes several at a time. They can get away with it." The men, by contrast, rarely complain about their minority status. "The ratio was a determinant in my coming here," says Matthew Carroll, another junior. "You can always go on a date if you want to. It's just a matter of having the time and a car."

This is not to say that a school dominated by women is necessarily an unpleasant place to be. Lauren Burns, a junior at UNC, says, "I wouldn't change the fact that there are so many females. We really feel a bond. It makes more women speak up; we're not afraid."

On the whole, though, administrators are concerned that students are missing out on a well-rounded experience. "College is for a lot more than going to class," says Phillips of Haverford, a men's college until 1980 that is now 52 percent female. "There's all kind of interactions that take place, intellectual and social in nature, and male and female point of view are important, just like viewpoints from different nationalities and different ethnic groups."

In an effort to bolster male enrollment, some colleges are putting greater emphasis on sports, an area in which men are thought to have a disproportionate interest. "We did win the Sun Bowl and win in our conference," says Sandra Ware, dean of admissions at Texas Christian University (59 percent female) in Fort Worth, lauding the school's champion football team. "So we're hoping that [males] were watching and paying attention to that." The University of Dallas (56 percent female) went so far as to form a varsity baseball squad, which added 28 much-sought-after men to the school in 1997. And as part of a five-year plan to attract more males, Fisk is contemplating a move from the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division III up to the more competitive Division II.

Other schools have fiddled with their recruitment materials, redesigning catalogs and revamping direct-mail campaigns. Edgewood is considering packaging their view books in different envelopes, depending on the sex of the recipient. "We're taking a cue from Bon Appetit magazine, which tried to increase their male readership with different color schemes and graphics," says Scott Flanagan, Edgewood's dean of admissions and financial aid. In 1997, Whitman College (55 percent female) in Walla Walla, Wash., sent a second mailing of recruitment materials to 5,900 men–but not to women. The move gained the school 40 more male applicants.

Male preference? Schools say they stop short of offering "affirmative action for men," but some confide that giving male applicants a slight break is becoming a standard, albeit unspoken, practice. "Colleges and universities are dipping down deeper into their male pool than their female pool," says AAHE president Miller. "It's definitely out there," agrees Joan Mudge, director of college counseling at the all-girls Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills, Md. "They don't come right out and say they're discriminating against our girls, but they are." When calling schools to inquire why highly qualified female applicants were rejected, Mudge says admissions directors will "hedge and hedge before saying, 'Our female applicant pool was just incredible this year.' "

Such griping must seem ironic to many women who remember when higher education, especially at four-year schools, was a privilege reserved mostly for their brothers. Indeed, the gender flip-flop could be viewed as an amazing success story. But some observers who study the gender patterns of the work force warn that the picture is not as rosy as it might appear. Among the population of full-time workers, women with bachelor's degrees still make only $4,708 more on average than men holding nothing more than a high school diploma; that's close to $20,000 less than the college-degree premium enjoyed by men. And there are concerns that most areas of study preferred by women–English over engineering, psychology over computer science–are reinforcing their secondary position in the economy. "Every sort of job that's associated with females is also associated with declining status," says Barbara Miller, an anthropologist and former director of women's studies at George Washington. "They're less economically promising in terms of lifetime earnings."

"We still find that women are more likely to be concentrated in female fields, which have lower pay, fewer opportunities for advancement, and less prestige," says Judith Sturnick, director of the American Council on Education's Office of Women in Higher Education. In part this stems from choices that are almost as much about lifestyle as they are about ambition: "A typical high school male student may feel he has to go directly into an engineering or business track right away," says Edgewood's Flanagan. (Indeed, schools with strong engineering programs–like large state schools–have not experienced this trend as dramatically.) "Female students have a much more enlightened view that, to succeed later in life, they need an education with more breadth to it."

But Sturnick cites the current rise of corporate-sponsored schools–such as the Cisco computer-networking program–which train mostly men for high-paying, often technology-related jobs, as women slog along at traditional colleges. "Will we set up a separate track for education which will primarily benefit men, which will allow them to enter the job market with higher pay at a higher salary," Sturnick asks, "while women continue on the baccalaureate track, end up debt laden, and then wind up three or four years behind in a profession?" She says higher education could become devalued because of its increasing feminization–the same phenomenon that has occurred with elementary school teachers–and that earning a bachelor's degree will someday be considered a foolhardy economic decision. "When there begins to be a predominance of female members in any area, the value of that area goes down," she says. "Is it possible we are devaluing higher education? There's a potential for that as more and more women dominate in degree achievement."

The still-small number of women majoring in math and the sciences also has some education watchers troubled. Though many traditionally "male" majors–like business–have moved toward parity or are now female dominated, women are still vastly outnumbered on campuses with strong engineering and physical-sciences programs. The student body at the California Institute of Technology, for example, is still 73 percent male. "What we're seeing now is that there is a tremendous gap in computer science," says Sandy Bernard, president of the American Association of University Women. "That one will be really significant." She worries that women's lack of those types of degrees will sentence them to also-ran status in the high-tech workplace, where the big money will be.

Social distortion. Tom Mortenson foresees another problem, one with major implications for the American way of courtship, marriage, and family life. "If the educational attainment differences continue to grow at the rate they are, a shrinking number of college-educated women are going to find college-educated men to marry," he cautions. It's a trend that is already familiar to African-American women, many of whom bemoan the fact that there are relatively few college-educated black men to choose from.

Occasional griping about dim romantic prospects aside, most female students realize how far they've come. "You know, 20 years ago it was not this way at all," says Jen Balk, a Hamline sophomore. "It was all the men going to school and getting the good jobs, and there was such a barrier. Now that we have the opportunity, everybody's taking it." And what of the men who are increasingly not part of that "everybody"? If college degrees remain an entree to wealth and status in the 21st century, males may have to get used to the same second-class status that American women so long endured, as highly educated females become the majority among the nation's intellectual, economic, and even power elite. "I hope the men can accommodate what's going to happen," says Mortenson, "when the woman becomes the main breadwinner in the family." It could prove enough of a shock to send the guys scurrying off to hit the books–and fill out some college applications.

With Viva Hardigg in Chapel Hill, Deänna Lackaff in St. Paul, and James Morrow, Ben Wildavsky, and Mary Lord

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