The Male Minority

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Women far outnumber men at Dickinson College, where this class studies French

When Meg Delong was in high school in the northern Georgia town of Gainesville, she was a serious student with her eye on college. Many of her girlfriends worked toward the same goal. But her younger brother and most of her male friends seemed more inclined to act like Falstaff than to study Shakespeare. "A lot of guys thought studying was for girls," says DeLong, now a junior French major at the University of Georgia in Athens. "They were really intelligent, but they would goof off, and it seemed to be accepted by the teachers."

Take DeLong's experience, multiply it a few thousand times in schools across the state, and it isn't surprising that at her campus this year, the freshman class is nearly 61% female. In a freshman English tutorial, small clusters of men sit quietly as women dominate class discussions. But outside class, the mood on campus is distinctly male friendly. Tyler Willingham, social chair of the Sigma Nu fraternity, observes that at parties, even guys without dates can choose from "many beautiful women."

This sort of gender gap is glaring and growing at campuses across America. Until 1979, men made up the majority of college students. As women won increasing equality elsewhere in society, it was natural and expected that they would reach parity in college, which they did by the early 1980s. But the surprise has been that men's enrollment in higher education has declined since 1992. Males now make up just 44% of undergraduate students nationwide. And federal projections show their share shrinking to as little as 42% by 2010. This trend is among the hottest topics of debate among college-admissions officers. And some private liberal arts colleges have quietly begun special efforts to recruit men — including admissions preferences for them.

Why the shortage? There are few hard facts, but lots of theories. Anecdotal evidence suggests that more men than women respond to the lure of high-tech jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree. Some call this the Bill Gates syndrome, after the college-dropout chairman of Microsoft. But high-tech industries employ only about 9% of the U.S. work force. Amid the hot economy of recent years, a larger group of men — especially those from lower-income families — might be heading straight from high school into fields like aircraft mechanics and telephone- and power-line repair that pay an average of $850 a week rather than taking on a load of college debt. Some social critics blame a dearth of male role models among schoolteachers, and a culture that promotes anti-intellectualism among boys. And, especially in inner cities, crime and gangs entice more boys than girls away from learning.

How pervasive is the gender gap? According to Thomas Mortenson, an education analyst in Oskaloosa, Iowa, the share of college degrees earned by males has been declining for decades. U.S. government figures show that from 1970 to 1996, as the number of bachelor's degrees earned by women increased 77%, the number earned by men rose 19%. Not all schools are feeling the imbalance; many Úlite colleges and universities have seen applications soar from both sexes. But the overall numbers, says Mortenson, should make us "wake up and see that boys are in trouble."

Jacqueline King, author of a recent study on the gender gap in college, emphasizes that it is widest among blacks (63% women to 37% men in the latest figures), Hispanics (57% to 43%) and, in her analysis, lower-income whites (54% to 46%). "It's not middle-class white young men who aren't going to college," she says. And an enrollment boom among older women is further skewing the numbers.

Mortenson, though, cites U.S. Census measures indicating that the gap cuts across racial and income groups. Moreover, he and others argue, boys as a group trail girls at many stages of K-12 achievement: boys tend to earn lower grades and are less likely to earn a high school diploma. They score marginally higher on the SAT, but only 65% of boys who apply are admitted to college, vs. 69% of girls.

Christina Hoff Sommers, a conservative education analyst, writes in her recent book, The War Against Boys, that schoolboys are "routinely regarded as protosexists, potential harassers and perpetuators of gender inequity" who "live under a cloud of censure." Sommers cites studies showing that boys come to school less prepared than girls, do less homework and get suspended more often. "For males, there's no social currency in being a straight-A student," says Clifford Thornton, associate dean of admissions at Wesleyan University. Although the latest figures show that college graduates earn, on average, almost double the wages of those with no college, "there's a sense among many boys that it's sissy to go to college," says sociologist and author Michael Kimmel. "The thinking is, 'I can get a job without it.'"

Consider Justin Spagnoli. After high school he took classes at a community college before quitting to work in his father's cabinet shop in Royston, Ga. Today Spagnoli, 25, earns $50,000 a year, while his buddies are just finishing college, taking jobs for lower pay. "You don't need °reeacute;," he says, if you have a talent.

Some private liberal arts colleges are making it easier for men to get in. At Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., this year's freshman class is 43% male — up from 36% last year — in part because the school gave preference to "qualified male candidates on the margin," says Robert Massa, vice president for enrollment and student life. The idea gets mixed reviews among Dickinson's students. "It reeks of affirmative action," says physics major Michelle Edwards. But Massa emphasizes that "the men we admitted were as qualified as the women."

Last July the University of Georgia lost a lawsuit filed by female students who were denied admission because of an affirmative-action policy that favored men. Says junior Shanna Norris, 20: "It's not fair that a boy would get extra weight (in the admissions index) over a girl, but it would be better if there were more boys on campus."

How then to recruit more guys? At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recruiters aggressively tout math and science programs — traditionally popular among male applicants. Chicago's DePaul University (59% female) sends out extra mailings to boys.

Public universities, though, could face legal challenges if they were to try recruiting more males. In California a strict anti-affirmative-action statute effectively precludes gender-based outreach. In Texas and Florida — both of which have largely abolished preferences in admissions policies — state officials say there are no special plans to lure more men. Many schools still try to balance programs historically dominated by one gender (like engineering and social work) by offering slots to underrepresented students. But that doesn't necessarily boost, say, the number of Hispanic males. And that has led some educators to skirt the recruiting rules. At San Francisco State University, Roberto Haro, a professor of ethnic studies, routinely recruits minority males at Boys Clubs and middle schools in inner-city areas. As a result, he says, "in the past year, we've seen a slight increase in the number of minority males who have applied."

Black fraternities are also getting involved. In Maryland the Howard County alumni chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha runs a mentoring program for high school males, helping boost their grades and inspiring them to apply to college. Says program head David Barrett: "So many of our boys are in prison. The ones in school — they're under tremendous pressure from their peers not to excel academically. We want to show them that learning is O.K."

Michael Kimmel believes that once we begin to change the anti-intellectual current in our culture, market forces will help address the gender gap. "Eventually," he says, "men will start going back to college to meet the demand for an educated labor force." And surely more men will also be lured onto campuses by the realization that they'll be surrounded by smart, attractive women with great earnings prospects.

— With reporting by Anne Berryman/Athens