“The Future is Female.” It’s so good to see life return to the physical campus, and in observing the activity and energy, it’s easy to find young women wearing this increasingly popular slogan on their t-shirt or book bag. It seems a funny and well-earned assertion of pride, but one might question whether this notion of a future with single gender focus is a good thing (didn’t we try that for 100s of years?).
A Troubling Trend, Long Ignored
Within higher education, it should give us pause that these women are pointing out a trend we’ve been ignoring for a very long time. Men, across diverse demographics (age, race, major, class standing) are feeling lost - not enrolling, not returning, not succeeding. Years of claiming that higher education is inclusive and committed to the success of all students now seems short-sighted. Let’s look at the data…
The Chronicle (The Missing Men) recently reported that “in 1970 men accounted for 59 percent of college students. By 2019, that had essentially flip-flopped, with women accounting for 57 percent of enrollment.” This trend started slowly, years ago, was noticed and mentioned by only a few, and easily ignored by others. The Hechinger Report explores the sense of non-belonging that many men now feel in college (“We have a lot of young men who are completely disengaged from our society because quite frankly they don’t feel they’re being valued as men.”), and tells us the most serious enrollment losses have been in financially disadvantaged men.
The National Student Clearing House points out that the trend was strongly exacerbated during the pandemic. The NSCH gathers data on 97% of total enrollment for U.S. degree granting institutions and for the challenging Fall 2020 semester, found that compared to the pre-pandemic year before, loss was seven times as steep for men than for women, especially in community colleges, where so many financially disadvantaged students have sought an affordable education.
The Wall Street Journal (A Generation of American Men Give Up on College: ‘I Just Feel Lost’) digs into the numbers and tells us that enrollment rates for poor and working-class white men are even lower than those of young Black, Latino and Asian men from the same economic backgrounds, perhaps due to the lack of support services for white men as an identity group. Although there are more than 500 women’s centers in schools across the country providing a vast array of support and mentoring services, men have no support structures to keep them on track or help them thrive. “I just feel lost.”
Let’s pause on that data for a moment and acknowledge that enrollment follows Newton’s First Law of Motion: "A body at rest will remain at rest, and a body in motion will remain in motion unless it is acted upon by an external force." The consequences of a generation of men not receiving a college education seem undeniable but whether higher education reinvents and becomes the external force to keep men in motion is an issue (ethical, financial, societal) that should be haunting every college administrator right now. Our failure to graduate men is no longer a trend, it is a crisis that demands transformation of what education looks like and how we engage in an issue of social justice.
Finding Solutions - Long-Term and Short-Term
The solution to this problem will be complex and multi-faceted. Obviously, higher education leaders must deal with the current collection of policies, structures, processes, and the lack of targeted support that leave young men feeling lost. But the ultimate solution must put young men on pathways early on where they feel seen and engaged, and where they believe learning can lead to lives of meaning, fulfillment, and prosperity.
For many young men, this will require new degrees or shortened pathways to employment and connection to continuous learning and upskilling. All this must be aligned with the transformed knowledge, work, and learning that is now emerging in a post-industrial, post-Covid higher education ecosystem. This ecosystem will redefine many aspects of work and perpetual learning. Hopefully, it will enhance the ability of men and women to achieve agency in discovering work that will change many times over expeditionary careers spanning their lifetime.
Strategic Initiatives is committed to our research on case studies that offer innovative solutions to the challenges ahead. If you have innovative ideas or initiatives that address the increasing disenfranchising of young men in education, contact us at Strategic Initiatives and let’s explore solutions that we can share with the higher education community.