Over the last few months, news outlets have been awash with coverage on the trend of men abandoning college. A viral September 2021 Wall Street Journal article reported a significant decline in men’s attendance to college, the article headlined with a photograph of a pensive white man. The Wall Street Journal analysis reported that colleges saw a 1.5 million student decrease in the last five years, with 71% of this decrease being men.
But women have earned more bachelor’s degrees than men since 1982. Recent news coverage on the decline of male enrollment in college may speak more to societal anxieties about the increased educational access for women and people of color than provide any substantial insight of the gender divide in this country.
Reporting on this phenomenon frames this gender disparity as a serious problem. The Wall Street Journal said there is “no reversal is in sight” for this trend, with experts claiming men were “‘falling behind remarkably fast.’” The Atlantic framed the college gender disparity as a deep-rooted issue that furthers the disintegration of the American family as men fall into “‘haphazard’” lives.
One expert interviewed for The Atlantic emphasized the high stakes of this problem, quoted as saying “My biggest worry is that by the time policymakers realize that gender inequality in college is a problem, we’ll have hit a point where college will seem deeply effeminate to some men in a way that will be hard to undo,” going on to say, “That’s why we need both parties to offer a positive vision of college and a positive vision of masculinity. If male identity is seen, by some, as being at odds with education, that’s a problem for the whole country.”
This quote, which went by uncontested by The Atlantic reporter, is ridiculous. Rather than creating legislative measures to make college seem more “masculine,” shouldn’t men be able to unpack their irrational fear and dislike of all things feminine?
This quote speaks to the issues with the narrative that men are rapidly being pushed out of college.
First, the arguments quoted in these articles are deeply rooted in biological gender essentialism. The Atlantic article cites a study that claims that girls get higher grades than boys because of “their superior self-control and ability to delay gratification.” The Wall Street Journal stated social scientists attribute “cases of overdiagnosis of boyhood restlessness and related medications” as a partial cause for men not attending college.
These studies pretend gender has a biological basis that can dictate our entire personhood and capabilities, which science has proven, time and time again, is a construct that does not actually exist. These studies also dismiss the existence of transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people.
The biological explanations provided in The Atlantic and Wall Street Journal articles do not stand within the constructs of their own argument. If women have a biological advantage because their “brains mature faster than boys,” why haven’t they always been the majority on college campuses? Why is it only now that women are allegedly overtaking men in higher education?
A more observable answer is that most women couldn’t attend college or other higher education institutions up until the 19th century. In the United States, Most colleges were not co-educational until the 20th century. Would it be so ludicrous to imagine removing educational barriers could increase the number of women at schools?
This speaks to the second issue with the Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic articles — they simply do not consider other societal factors that may be at play here.
The increasing cost of college, compounded with the awful state of the job market and the economy post-recession and pandemic are significant factors contributing to the decrease of college student enrollment.
One man interviewed for the Journal article repeatedly mentions that finances are a big reason why he is not attending college. The Atlantic article even acknowledges that the perilous state of the job market and the economy make college all the more unattainable.
The cost of college is astronomical. This is an issue that does not only affect men.
Moreover, the articles do not consider the intersectional dimensions of this issue. The Atlantic article cites higher incarceration rates for men as a sign that men are increasingly living “‘haphazard’” lives, without any mention of race. Black men are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated due to the racist foundations and construction of the criminal justice system. This issue is very different from a white man not attending college because he feels lost.
Race, disability and financial status are just some of the key factors that may be at play, and yet, nothing other than gender is being substantially addressed or analyzed within these articles.
Much of the rhetoric demonstrated within these two articles is very similar to the language used by men’s rights groups. Men’s rights groups often misuse statistics — like incarceration rates — to deny the existence of structural misogyny and inequality.
The reality of the situation may be more complex than these articles are making it out to be. It is not necessarily that men no longer have a path to college, but rather, that with the increasing visibility of women and people of color attending college, higher education and success no longer seems like a guarantee — although studies have shown that it very much is.
Rather than framing this as an issue of men lagging behind, consider addressing systemic issues of financial inequality. Making college affordable, and forgiving student loans across the country, would help everyone — including men — have easier access to higher education. These are realistic solutions to real problems.
How about we start there, and stop writing meandering think pieces that sound like they came out of a bad stand-up routine from the ’80s.