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Original Article:
Where the Boys Aren’t (spring 2005)


A Growing Gender Gap
May 2008

THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL of academic achievement among young males was already a clear trend in 2005, when National CrossTalk published an article about this growing gender gap in higher education. At the time, Tom Mortenson, editor and publisher of the newsletter Postsecondary Education Opportunity, sounded a decidedly pessimistic note, and suggested that matters were likely to worsen.

The issue has continued to receive scant media attention, at best, and Mortenson has seen nothing to signal an improvement in the numbers. In fact, the trend might even have accelerated. “The girls keep pulling away from the boys,” Mortenson said. “We were looking at our data, state by state, and the share of bachelor’s degrees going to men is the smallest it’s ever been—much less than for women.”

Mortenson is a fount of information about this issue, and can provide a ready stream of data. “What seems to have happened is that, over many decades, there is a constant share of males that earn bachelor’s degrees, so all the educational progress has gone to women,” he said. “They started way behind men, but today there are 2.7 million more women than men in higher education.”

Across the board, male participation and degree completion hovers at around 40 percent. Men hold the lead only in doctoral degrees, of which they earn slightly more than half.

Mortenson’s newsletter has increased its presence on the Internet substantially in recent years, and can be found at However, interest does not seem to be building. “We have been slowly losing subscribers since about 2003,” Mortenson said. “Last year we had to redesign our website to limit access to those who support our activities—paid subscribers. But we still let media people in all the time.” In part, this is the result of Mortenson’s decision to forgo advertising to subsidize the website. “I was contacted early on by one of the big student loan businesses,” he said. “But I decided to do it without ads.”

Gender disparities in higher education are an issue outside the U.S. as well, and Mortenson recently attended a conference in Toronto on the subject, sponsored by the Canada Millennium Scholarship foundation and the European Access Network. “So much is happening in Europe,” he said. “They are experiencing the same thing. Frankly, in a majority of countries in the world, there are more women than men in higher education. The Scandinavians have the worst gender imbalance.” And while the notion persists that women are disadvantaged in education, Mortenson said, “it’s males who are performing poorly.”

“The Europeans are not really paying attention to this either,” Mortenson added. “The problem of gender politics we have in this country, as far as I can tell, exists everywhere else as well. But the data are clear—the women keep pulling farther and farther away.”

What’s to be done? In Mortenson’s view, women have been more successful than men in adapting to an expanding service-based economy, dominated by jobs in healthcare, business and professional services. “We are preparing our girls far better for the jobs that are out there than we are our boys,” Mortenson said. “By and large, the jobs men have done continue to disappear, but the men don’t seem to understand that agriculture and manufacturing are not coming back. Things can always be produced at a lower cost elsewhere in the world. There is nothing to suggest that men are going to be able to make it unless they get their act together and stay in school.”

Any meaningful remedies will have to involve the K–12 system. “It’s too late to practice affirmative action for boys who are already at the college level,” Mortenson said. “You have to start asking why the colleges can’t prepare teachers for the classroom who can engage the boys. I think it’s fair to hold the colleges accountable for that.”

While Mortenson’s experience has made him a believer that change is possible, he has no illusions, and he remains dubious. When asked if he holds out hope for the future, his response was quick and terse. “Nope.”

—Todd Sallo

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