In the last week of her life, my mother extracted a promise from me. “Make sure,” she said, “that Orion goes to college.”
I swore that I would, although I wasn’t at all sure how I’d make it happen. Even in the year 2000, average tuitions were almost 10 times what my own undergraduate school had charged 30 years earlier. I knew that sending my nephew to college would cost more money than I’d have when the time came. If he was going to college, like his aunt before him, he’d need financial help. The difference was that his “help” was likely to come not as a grant, but as life-defining loans.
“Orion,” by the way, is a pseudonym for my brother’s son, my parents’ only grandchild. To the extent that any of us placed family hopes in a next generation, he’s borne them all. Orion was only five years old when I made that promise and he lived 3,000 miles away in a depressed and depressing de-industrialized town in New York’s Hudson River Valley. We’d only met in person once at that point. Over the years, however, we kept in touch by phone, later by text message, and twice he even visited my partner and me in San Francisco.
A little more than a decade after I made that promise, Orion graduated from high school. I thought that with a scholarship, loans, and financial help from his father and us, we might indeed figure out how to pay the staggering costs of a college education, which now averages $35,000 a year, having doubled in this century alone.
It turned out, however, that money wasn’t the only obstacle to making good on my promise. There was another catch as well. Orion didn’t want to go to college. Certainly, the one guidance counselor at his 1,000-student public high school had made no attempt to encourage either him or, as far as I could tell, many of his classmates to plan for a post-high-school education. But would better academic counseling have made a difference? I doubt it.
A bright boy who had once been an avid reader, Orion was done with schooling by the time he’d turned 18. He made that clear when I visited him for a talk about his future. He had a few ideas about what he might do: join the military or the New York state police. In reality, though, it turned out that he had no serious interest in either of those careers.
He might have been a disaffected student, but he was — and is — a hard worker. Over the next few years, despite sky-high unemployment in the Hudson River Valley, he always had a job. He made and delivered pizzas. He cleaned rooms at a high-end hotel for wealthy equestrians. He did pick-up carpentry. And then he met an older tradesman who gave him an informal apprenticeship in laying floors and setting tile. Orion learned how to piece together hardwood and install carpeting. He proudly showed me photos of the floors he’d laid and the kitchens he’d tiled.
Eventually, he had to part ways with his mentor, who also happened to be a dangerous drunk. We had another talk and I reminded him of my promise to my mother. I’d recently gotten an unexpected windfall — an advance on a book I was writing, American Nuremberg — which put me in a position to help set him up in business. He bought a van, completed his tool set, and paid for a year’s insurance. Now, 10 years after graduating from high school, he’s making decent money as a respected tradesman and is thinking about marrying his girlfriend. He’s made himself a life without ever going to college.
I worry about him, though. Laying floors is a young person’s trade. A few years on your knees, swinging a hammer all day, will tear your joints apart. He can’t do this forever.
The Rising of the Women
Still, it turns out that my nephew isn’t the only young man to opt out of more schooling. I’ve seen this in my own classrooms and the data confirms it as a national and international trend.
I started teaching ethics at the University of San Francisco in 2005. It soon struck me that there were invariably more women in my classes than men. Nor was the subject matter responsible, since everyone had to pass a semester of ethics to graduate from that Jesuit university. No, as it turned out, my always-full classes represented the school’s overall gender balance. For a few years, I wondered whether such an overrepresentation of women could be attributed to parents who felt safer sending their daughters to a Catholic school, especially in a city with San Francisco’s reputation for sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Recently, though, I came to realize that my classes were simply part of a much larger phenomenon already beginning to worry some observers. Until about 1990, men invariably outnumbered women at every level of post-secondary education and more of them graduated, too. At four-year colleges and in post-graduate programs or in community colleges (once they became more prevalent), more men earned two-year, four-year, master’s, and doctorate-level degrees.
It was during the 1970s that the ratio began to shift. In 1970, among recent high-school graduates, 32% of the men and just 20% of the women enrolled in post-secondary institutions. By 1990, equal percentages – around 32% — were going to college. In the years that followed, college attendance continued to increase for both sexes, but significantly faster for women who, in 1994, surpassed men. Since the end of the 1990s, men’s college attendance has stayed relatively stable at about 37% of high-school graduates.
Women’s campus presence, however, has only continued to climb with 44% of recent female high-school graduates enrolled in post-secondary schools by 2019.
So, the problem, if there is one, isn’t that men have stopped going to college. A larger proportion of them, in fact, attend today than at any time in our history. It’s just that an even larger proportion of women are doing so.
As a result, if you visit a college campus, you should see roughly three women — now about 60% of all college students — for every two men. And that gap has been growing ever wider, even during the disruption of the Covid pandemic.
Not only do more women now attend college than men, but they’re more likely to graduate and receive degrees. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in 1970, men received 57% of both two- and four-year degrees, 61% of master’s degrees, and 90% of doctorates. By 2019, women were earning the majority of degrees at all levels.
One unexpected effect of this growing college gender gap is that it’s becoming harder for individual women to get into selective schools. The Hechinger Report, a non-profit institution focused on education, lists a number of well-known ones where male applicants have a better chance of being accepted, including:
“Boston, Bowdoin and Swarthmore colleges; Brown, Denison, Pepperdine, Pomona, Vanderbilt and Wesleyan universities; and the University of Miami. At each school, men were at least 2 percentage points more likely than women to be accepted in both 2019 and 2020. Pitzer College admitted 20% of men last year compared to 15% of women, and Vassar College accepted 28% of men compared to 23% of women. Both had more than twice as many female applicants as male applicants.”
Even for Vassar, once a women’s college, having too many women is now apparently a problem.
In addition, in recent years, despite those lower acceptance rates for women at elite schools, colleges have generally had to deal with declining enrollments, a trend only accelerated by the Covid pandemic. As Americans postpone having children and have fewer when they do, the number of people reaching college age is actually shrinking. Two-year colleges have been especially hard hit.
And there’s the debt factor. Like my nephew Orion, more potential students, especially men, are now weighing the problem of deferring their earnings, while acquiring a staggering debt load from their years at college. Some of them are opting instead to try to make a living without a degree. Certain observers think this shift has been partially caused by a pandemic-fueled rise in wages in the lower tiers of the American work force.
Why are there fewer men than women in college today? On this, theories abound, but genuine answers are few. Conservatives offer a number of explanations that echo their culture-war slogans, including that “the atmosphere on the nation’s campuses has become increasingly hostile to masculinity.”
A Wall Street Journal op-ed ascribed it in part to “labor-saving innovations in household management and child care — automatic washing machines, disposable diapers, inexpensive takeout restaurants — as well as new forms of birth control [that] helped women pursue college degrees and achieve new vocational ambitions.” But the biggest problem, write the op-ed’s authors, may be that girls simply do better in elementary and secondary school, which discourages boys from going on to college. This problem, they argue, is attributable not only to the advent of washing machines, but ultimately to the implementation of the Great Society’s liberal social policies. Citing Charles Murray, the reactionary co-author of the 1994 book The Bell Curve, they blame women’s takeover of higher education on the progressive social policies of the 1960s, the rise of the “custodial” (or welfare) state, and the existence of a vast pool of jailed men. They write:
“[T]here are about 1.24 million more men who are incarcerated than women, largely preventing them from attending traditional college. Scholars such as Charles Murray have long demonstrated that expanded government entitlements following the Great Society era have reduced traditional family formation, reduced incentives to excel both in school and on the job, and increased crime.”
Critics to the left have also cited male incarceration as a factor in the college gender divide, although they’re more likely to blame racist police and policies. Sadly, the devastation caused by jailing so many Black, Latino, and Native American men has only begun to be understood, but given the existing racial divide in college attendance, I seriously doubt that many of those men would be in college even if they weren’t in prison.
Some observers have also suggested that, given the staggering rise in college tuitions, young men, especially from the working and middle classes, often make a sound if instinctive decision that a college education will not repay their time, effort, and the debt load it entails. Like my nephew, they may indeed be better off entering a well-paying trade and getting an early start on building their savings.
Do Women Need College More Than Men?
If some young men now believe that college won’t reward them sufficiently to warrant the investment, many young women have rightly judged that they will need a college education to have any hope of earning a decent living. It’s no accident that their college enrollment skyrocketed in the 1970s. After a long post-World-War II economic expansion, that was the moment when wages in this country first began stagnating, a trend that continued in the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan launched his attacks on unions, while the federal minimum wage barely rose. In fact, it has remained stuck at $7.25 per hour since 2009.
First established in 1938, the minimum wage was intended to allow a single adult (then assumed to be a man) to support a non-earning adult (assumed to be his wife), and several children. It was called a “breadwinner” wage. The feminism that made work outside the home possible for women, saving the lives and sanity of so many of us, provided a useful distraction from those stagnant real wages, rising inequality, and the increased immiseration of millions (not to speak of the multiplication of billionaires).
In the last few decades of the twentieth century, many women came to believe that working for money was their personal choice. In truth, I suspect that they were also responding to new economic realities and the end of that “breadwinner” wage. I think the college gender gap, which grew ever wider as wages fell, is at least in part a consequence of those changes. Few of my women students believe that they have a choice when it comes to supporting themselves, even if they haven’t necessarily accepted how limited the kind of work they’re likely to find will be. Whether they form partnered households or not, they take it for granted that they’ll have to support themselves financially.
This makes a college degree even more important, since having it has a bigger impact on women’s earnings than on men’s. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis confirmed this. Reviewing 2015 census data, it showed that the average wage for a man with only a high-school diploma was around $12 per hour. Women earned 24.4% less than that, or about $9 hourly. On the other hand, women got a somewhat greater boost (28%) from earning a two-year degree than men (22%). For a four-year degree, it was 68% for women and 62% for men.
In other words, although a college education improves income prospects for both genders, it does more for women — even if not enough to raise their income to the level of men with the same education. The income gender gap remains stubbornly fixed in men’s favor. Like Alice in Through the Looking Glass, it seems women still have to run faster just to avoid losing ground. This means that for us, earning a decent living requires at least some college, which is less true for men.
What Does the Future Hold?
Sadly, as college becomes ever more the preserve of women, I suspect it will also lose at least some of its social and economic value. They let us in and we turned out to be too good at it. My prediction? Someday, college will be dismissed as something women do and therefore not an important marker of social or economic worth.
As with other realms that became devalued when women entered them (secretarial work, for example, or family medicine), I expect that companies will soon begin dropping the college-degree requirement for applicants.
In fact, it already seems to be happening. Corporations like IBM, Accenture, and Bank of America have begun opting for “skills-based” rather than college-based hiring. According to a CNBC report, a recent Harvard Business School study examined job postings for software quality-assurance engineers and “found that only 26% of Accenture’s postings for the job contained a degree requirement. At IBM, just 29% did.” Even the government is dropping some college-degree requirements. According to the same report, in January 2021, the White House issued an executive order on “Limiting [the] Use of Educational Requirements in Federal Service Contracts.” When hiring for IT positions, the order says, considering only those with college degrees “excludes capable candidates and undermines labor market efficiencies.” And recently, Maryland announced that it’s dropping the college graduation requirement for thousands of state positions.
Of course, this entire economic argument assumes that the value of a college education is purely extrinsic and can be fully measured in dollars. As a long-time college teacher, I still believe that education has an intrinsic value, beyond preparing “job-ready” workers or increasing their earning potential. At its best, college offers a unique opportunity to encounter new ideas in expansive ways, learn how to weigh evidence and arguments, and contemplate what it means to be a human being and a citizen of the world. It can make democracy possible in a time of creeping authoritarianism.
What kind of future do we face in a world where such an experience could be reduced, like knitting (which was once an honorable way for both sexes to earn a living), to a mere hobby for women?
Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of Mainstreaming Torture, American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.