Gender Gap Grows

Proportion of female undergraduates creeps ever higher -- but does not necessarily mean men are losing out, study suggests.
July 12, 2006

The proportion of college students who are men continues to shrink -- but that does not mean male students are being shut out of higher education, the American Council of Education says in a new report.

The study, "Gender Equity in Higher Education: 2006," updates a 2000 report by the council that some critics thought minimized the significance of higher education's gender gap, finds that the proportion of all undergraduates who are male had shrunk to 42 percent in 2003-4, down from 44 percent in 1999-2000.

That decline appears to have been driven largely by an rise in the proportion of women among traditional age students: from 1995-96 to 2003-4, the ratio of women among students aged 24 or younger grew from 52 to 55 percent. And much of that increase appears to result, the study found, from changes in the representation of white, Hispanic, and Asian American students, as shown in the table below:

Proportion of Undergraduates 24 or Younger Who Are Men

  1995-96 2003-4
All Students    
Men 48%   45%
Women 52 55
Men 49 46
Women 51 54
Men 37 40
Women 63 60
Men 45 43
Women 55 57
Asian American    
Men 54 50
Women 46 50
Note: The report states that the data for American Indians are not dependable.

And peeling back yet another layer, the growing gap between Hispanic and white men and women is occurring mostly among students from low-income families. Between 1995-6 and 2003-4, the proportion of men among traditional-age undergraduates in the lowest socioeconomic quartile fell to 44 percent from 48 percent for white students, and to 43 percent from 46 percent for Hispanics.

The gender gap is even starker among older students: Women made up 62 percent of undergraduates aged 25 or older in 2003-4, although that figure has stayed more or less constant since 1995-96, the report notes.

For the first time, the ACE study contains breakdowns on gender by type of institution. The variations are not enormously dramatic, but men are least represented at for-profit institutions (38 percent of all undergraduates) and best reprsented at public doctoral institutions, where they make up 46 percent of all undergraduates. The other sectors fall in between.

The ACE's 2000 report played down the meaningfulness of the gender gap, urging policy makers to "concentrate our time, resources and attention on the students who are in the greatest danger of being left behind in the educational pipeline and to avoid becoming distracted by 'crises' that may have little basis in fact."

That sort of language set teeth a-gnashin' among critics, like Thomas G. Mortensen, editor and publisher of the "Postsecondary Education Opportunity" newsletter and a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, who said that the ACE study "tried to marginalize or trivialize the issue."

The 2006 version of the ACE study does not seek to minimize the significance of the gap nearly as much as the earlier report did. But it does make the point that just because the proportion of men in higher education is declining, that does not mean that men are suffering. Among other things, the study points out, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to men is rising, just at a slower rate than for women.

“Women are making gains in college participation and degree attainment, but their gains have not come at the expense of men,” said Jacqueline E. King, director of ACE’s Center for Policy Analysis and author of the study. “The number of men enrolled in college has increased, but not fast enough to narrow what is now a 57 percent female majority in total enrollment.”

The report is not available online. It is for sale on ACE's Web site.


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