• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


“Disaffected Dudes”

How can a community college reach underemployed men in their twenties and thirties?

August 4, 2016

How can a community college reach underemployed men in their twenties and thirties?

This group -- Josh Wyner called them “disaffected dudes,” which I’ve decided to steal -- comes back to college at far lower rates than women of the same age. Some of that may be the perverse side effect of the wage gap; if men without degrees make more money than women without degrees, then the opportunity cost of men returning to school is higher. (If he makes 40k and she makes 20k, then sending her to school means forgoing 20k; sending him would mean forgoing 40k.)  But anecdotally, that seems like only a small part of it.

Part of it, I assume, is programming. When I was at DeVry, the student body was about ⅔ male, and mostly older. That seemed to be a function of advertising and the programs offered, though it probably also became self-perpetuating at a certain point. Tressie McMillan Cottom later told me that it was an outlier, and that in fact, for-profits as a sector skewed female. That makes the question even harder.

I’m raising the question not to discount the economic issues women face, of course. I’m raising it because as a sector, we seem really bad at answering it.  

The sociological treatments I’ve seen of gender and wages suggest that people making secure adult wages with benefits are likelier marriage prospects, and likelier to provide stable homes for children. At a really basic level, that makes sense; it’s easier to be your better self when the wolf isn’t at the door.  If we want stable families -- however defined -- good jobs are helpful.

In the mid-twentieth century, lots of “disaffected dudes” could find good jobs in the unionized blue collar sector. The blue-collar aristocracy offered the underpinnings for stable family and community life. My grandfather did that. He dropped out of the ninth grade, eventually finding unionized work with Detroit Edison as a lineman. On that salary, he was able to send two kids to college. Mom even talked him into sending her to the University of Michigan, which was a relatively progressive gesture in the early 1960’s. Between his good job and generous public support for higher education, they could do it.  

Jobs like that are scarcer now. Brookdale has a program with JCP&L, the local electric utility, to train people for jobs like that; it routinely attracts several hundred applicants for about 25 positions. Nice work if you can get it, but it’s hard to get. The fact that hundreds of applicants show up for that particular program suggests that they’re out there, and if you find the right hook, they’re reachable. We just haven’t found the right hook often enough.

Reaching the disaffected dudes is hard, precisely because they’re disaffected. Churches are often female-dominated and tend to skew older. Outside of the public sector, unions aren’t what they used to be.  Even popular culture has fragmented to the point that it can be harder to ensure that you reach people. In the 90’s, DeVry could advertise on Ricki Lake and get her viewers. (It did. Class discussions required etiquette lessons.) With the proliferation of screen options, it’s much harder to get large numbers in one place than it used to be.  

Has anyone out there done a consistently good job of attracting underemployed guys in their 20’s and 30’s? If so, how did you do it?  



Back to Top