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Many of today’s most worrisome social problems involve males. Crime is only the tip of the iceberg.

Boys in elementary and middle school are roughly fifty percent more likely to repeat a gradetwice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension, and nearly three times as likely to be expelled.

Boy are also nearly 40 percent more likely to drop out of high school.

Men are more likely to binge drink and to use illicit drugs at high rates than women at almost every age.

A significant number of boys also tend to be less realistic about the requirements for success in today’s service-oriented and information-intensive economy.

Nor is higher education exempt from “boy trouble.”

Young men are less likely to enroll in college immediately after high school and are about 20 percent more likely to dropout of a college.

In college, male students perform more poorly than do their female counterparts, recording lower GPAs and earning fewer credit hours. Partly this is due to lower levels of college readiness (evident in lower high school GPAs) and in part to differences in course and major selection.

Today, women earn 57.4 percent of Bachelor degrees, 58.4 percent of Master’s degrees, and of 52,8 percent of Doctoral degrees.  Taking Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate’s together, women women have earned 13 million more degrees than men since 1982.

Consequences of this gender attainment gap might well include a dwindling pool of marriageable men and mounting anger and alienation among the growing number of young men who feel cut off from the opportunities to achieve a middle-class standard of living.

The gender gap in illegal, anti-social, and counter-productive behavior has been explained in many conflicting ways, including the notorious and grossly exaggerated claim that that anti-male prejudice has contributed to a “war against boys.” Nor is there much evidence to support the claim that video games, hip hop, a “school-ain’t-cool” ethic within boy culture, or female-dominated schools explain these gender differences.

Recently, a great deal of emphasis has been placed on the role of “hegemonic” or “toxic” masculinity – the dictate that manliness requires a boy or man to suppress emotions, mask distress, refuse to admit vulnerability or neediness, and be physically strong, competitive, and aggressive. But such a constricted conception of masculinity does little, by itself, to help us understand academic underperformance and what to do to combat that.

What do we actually know about why young men – except at the most elite colleges and universities – are under-represented in higher education? Several factors stand out:

Academic Underpreparation
On average, cognitive development and development of self-regulatory behaviors occur at differing rates among boys and girls. Grade schools, in recent years, have placed greater demand on reading and writing skills, areas in which many boys’ skills lag behind girls’, leaving many discouraged and disaffected. Many withdraw, and direct their energies elsewhere. There is also reason to believe that schools are insufficiently attentive to the needs of active, inquisitive students who are unable to sit still and control their emotions, whether these or girls or boys.

Young men’s declining academic aspirations
Beginning in the early 1990s, young men’s educational aspirations began to fall, with significantly more women than men planning to attend and graduate from college. Girls’ aspirations rose; boys’ fell.  Nor is the gap in academic aspirations confined to low-income students.  Even among middle-income students, men were less likely to aspire to pursue a college education.

Unresponsiveness to the differing needs of students 
In certain respects, K-12 classrooms tend to focus more on boys than girls. Teachers, according to some older studies, are more likely to call on boys, attribute ideas advanced in class to boys, ask boys more abstract questions, and elaborate on points made by male students. Boys are also more likely to blurt out answers without raising their hands, speak out more frequently and longer in class discussions, and adopt a verbal style that is more argumentative, assertive, and self-confident – all ways to establish status, dominance, and hierarchy. 

Yet despite this bias, some boys are more likely to act out in class, become distracted, and not take their classes seriously.

The challenge for teachers is to develop the abilities of all students as fully as possible. This requires attentiveness to classroom dynamics, including gender dynamics, responsiveness to students’ needs, and the ability to differentiate instruction.

The concept of learning styles has been subject to withering criticism, but the fact remains that students differ in their interests, prior knowledge, ability, motivation, attitude toward schoolwork, detail orientation, time management skills, and degree of extroversion and introversion. The most effective teachers tailor learning experiences and activities, as much as possible, to students’ diverse needs.  They also give students multiple ways to demonstrate their learning, which can include verbalizing, visualizing, writing, performing, presenting, debating, and creating.

What is to be done?

The answers are straight forward; implementation is, of course, the greatest challenge.

Some answers evoke very mixed emotions.  Some colleges have instituted affirmative action for men by lowering admissions standards for male applicants. Some have expanded sports offerings, in hopes of attracting more men. Toleration of fraternities, despite recurrent scandals, is driven, in part, by a conviction that these institutions play a vital recruitment and retention role. We’ve also witnessed a proliferation of courses and majors designed to appeal to young men.

But there are uncontroversial steps that institutions can take.

  • Colleges need to help young men develop the communication, critical reading, and collaboration skills needed to prosper in today’s knowledge and service economy.  
  • Degree programs need to be more obviously relevant and engaging, by expanding experiential learning opportunities, maker spaces, and entrepreneurship programs. A greater emphasis on mentorship and mentored activities might also make a big difference.
  • Support services need to be highly attentive to the challenges that young men face.  The psychologist Carol Tavris suggests that campus conversations that review empirical research findings, for example, about issues of consent in sexual relations, can be helpful fostering dialogue and raising awareness.
  • Institutions need to be transparent about costs, requirements, and benefits of a particular degree program.   

I should not end this post without underscoring a key point:  Saying that educational institutions are not doing a good job of serving many young men does not imply that we should redirect our efforts to better serve young women. Women remain grossly under-represented in two of the highest demand, highest paying fields of study, Computer Science and Engineering, and underrepresented in mathematics, statistics, and the physical sciences. And at the most highly selective institutions, admissions favors young men, not women, due to the stress placed on standardized testing.

Failure to pay adequate attention to the other gender gap poses many challenges for colleges. Many admissions officers fear that institutions reach a tipping point when the number of female students exceeds 60 percent; then, enrollments fall for women as well as men.

Gender gaps, in short, matter, irrespective of sex.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin


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