Clues About the Gender Gap

Survey of incoming freshmen finds that female students have better study habits and read more than their male peers.
January 15, 2007

The growing gender gap in college enrollments and outcomes is a vexing problem, and no single, simple explanation or potential solution exists. But a new survey of incoming freshmen suggests that those concerned about the college performance of men might focus their attention on getting high-school boys to turn off their Play Station 3's and hit the books.

"The 2007 National Freshman Attitudes Report," a survey of nearly 100,000 incoming freshmen at 292 public and private two- and four-year colleges, finds that men and women share high expectations for getting a degree, "no matter what obstacles get in my way." But male students at the same time report coming into college with far less ambitious intellectual interests and sharply lesser study habits than their female counterparts. Even so, male students in general express greater confidence in their academic abilities than do female students.

The report by Noel-Levitz, which consults with colleges on admissions, financial aid and retention issues, is based on a written survey of incoming students during summer orientation courses or their initial weeks on campus last fall.

The survey found that students of both genders come into college with lofty goals and expectations for what they will accomplish while there, as seen in the following table:

  All Students Male Students Female Students
Strong desire
to continue
94.6% 92.6% 96.2%
Very strongly
dedicated to
finishing degree
93.6 91.7 95.1
Deeply committed to educational goals; prepared to sacrifice to achieve them 88.8 85.3 91.6

Male students' ambitions are in the same ballpark as those of female students. But the gap between the two genders is much wider in areas that would indicate the students' likelihood of actually accomplishing their goals. Female students are much likelier than men to say that they like reading and books:

  All Students Male Students Female Students
Books have broadened my horizons 57.1% 49.5% 63.1%
Get great satisfaction from reading 46.7 37.8 53.7
Books have never excited me 39.6 48.1 32.9

Women are also much more likely than their male counterparts to describe themselves as having study habits that are conducive to academic success:

  All Students Male Students Female Students
Take careful notes and review thoroughly before test 59.5% 47.4% 69.0%
Study hard for all courses (even those I dislike) 57.9 49.8 64.4
Studying is irregular and unpredictable 32.9 38.9 28.2

Although those answers would appear to make women more poised for success at the college level, male students in general seem to start college with more confidence in their abilities than female students have, particularly in math and the sciences. For instance, 53.4 percent of male students surveyed said they have "a very good grasp of the scientific ideas I've studied in school," compared to 42.4 percent of female students. And 42.2 percent of women said that "math has always been a challenge for me," compared to 35.2 percent of men.

None of the science numbers are likely to hearten educators who work in those fields, however. Fewer than 40 percent of all students said that they enjoy the challenge of trying to solve complex math problems and that they have a "very good understanding" of general biology, including cell structure and genetics.

Beyond the questions and answers on academic goals and preparation, the Noel-Levitz survey includes data, broken down by institution type as well as gender, on career goals, family emotional support, financial security, and receptivity to academic and other kinds of counseling, among other topics.

Among the findings:

  • Nearly 45 percent of students at two-year institutions said they planned to work more than 20 hours a week, compared to nearly 27 percent of students entering four-year private colleges and 19 percent of those at four-year public institutions.
  • Almost four in five students said they had already found a potential career that attracts them.
  • Fewer than half said they had the financial resources that they need to finish college.


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