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The female share of college enrollments has been going up and up, to the point where women now make up a majority of undergraduates and in many graduate and professional programs. Many attribute this growth to societal changes and federal gender-equity laws. A new book, however, argues that several other laws may have had a significant and typically ignored impact. Those laws not only didn't seek to promote the education of women, but their unintended consequences may have horrified some of their congressional sponsors. The impact of these laws is significant, the book argues.

The book is Citizens by Degree: Higher Education Policy and the Changing Gender Dynamics of American Citizenship (Oxford University Press). Its author is Deondra Rose, assistant professor of public policy and political science at Duke University. Rose responded to questions about the book via email.

Q: Most observers have pointed to recent societal trends, not decades-old legislation, to explain the rise of female enrollments. What made you think to look at legislation?

A: As a graduate student, I majored in government with an emphasis on public policy, and one semester I took a terrific course that focused on work-family policies around the world. During one class session, we discussed the striking increase in women’s educational attainment since the mid-20th century and the various factors that contributed to this trend. We talked about the rising age of first marriage, declining fertility rates, greater control over reproductive decisions thanks to the pill, changing social norms and the emergence of occupational opportunities that made higher education a reasonable -- and increasingly necessary -- endeavor for women.

Missing from that conversation, however, was a meaningful consideration of higher education policy and the role that lawmakers have played in helping women earn college degrees since the 1960s. Higher education polices like the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and the Higher Education Act of 1965 helped to make college affordable for women, while Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments outlawed sex discrimination in college admissions.

While we rightfully acknowledge the central role that the women’s rights movement and feminism have played in the progress women have made in recent years, it is important to also recognize that landmark higher education legislation has also played a critical role in promoting greater equality for women.

Q: How did the National Defense Education Act of 1958 encourage women to go to college?

A: By making broad-reaching federal student aid available to women for the first time, the National Defense Education Act helped to remove financial need as a barrier to higher education for women the way the 1944 GI Bill had for an entire generation of men.

Before the NDEA’s creation, when most families possessing limited financial resources faced the challenge of financing their children’s higher education, they typically chose to invest in sons’ education with the expectation that men would become breadwinners for their families. Women, on the other hand, were viewed as likely to retreat from the labor force upon marrying and/or having children, thereby wasting any investment in their postsecondary education. The public support offered by the NDEA was a game changer, and how it came about is fascinating.

The NDEA emerged after the Soviet Union defeated the United States in the space race by launching the Sputnik satellite in 1957. In the midst of Cold War tensions, the U.S. sought to address this defeat by increasing investments in the nation’s “manpower” -- or, to put it more gender neutrally, “brainpower.”

The law was part of an effort to develop the intellectual abilities of the citizenry -- and to promote national security -- by helping more young people to go to college. Although the NDEA has gained recognition for promoting vital support for those pursuing higher education in math, science and technology-related fields, it is important to note that the policy offered need-based federal financial aid to students studying the entire range of subjects -- “from physics to philosophy,” as bill architect Representative Carl Elliott noted.

Q: My question is the same for the Higher Education Act, which created so many programs, but they were gender neutral. What was the impact there?

A: The Higher Education Act of 1965 was noteworthy because it helped to reinforce the federal government’s new role as a source of financial assistance to college students. In addition to shoring up the need-based loans that had been created under the National Defense Education Act, the HEA added the first broadly accessible, need-based federal grants to college students, as well as work-study support.

Like the National Defense Education Act, the HEA’s provisions were granted without specific regard to gender. However, they were especially valuable to women, who typically had more difficulty securing private sources of funding to support their higher educational endeavors.

Q: Did the lawmakers pushing these bills want to help women advance in higher education, or was that just a consequence?

A: It was actually what I describe in the book as “accidental egalitarianism” -- an instance where equality-enhancing policy emerged as a result of efforts to carefully navigate their way through delicate political issues. Surprisingly, the architects of the NDEA were Southern Democrats from Alabama whose central objective was to target financial assistance to needy students. This was, of course, at a historical moment characterized by intense disagreement over the propriety of federal intervention in the states, and education was a particularly contentious battleground for this debate.

Previous attempts to pass federal student aid legislation had been dashed by disagreement over the issues of race and religion. The story of how the policy successfully cleared daunting political hurdles is a remarkable one. One of the things that becomes clear from my analysis is that, while lawmakers were not focused on expanding higher educational opportunity for women, in particular, they were committed to substantially expanding support for needy college students, more generally.

Q: There is much debate in higher education these days about the decline in male enrollments, with some seeing a problem and others noting that society tolerated minimal female enrollments for decades. Do you view today's college student demographics as problematic?

A: This is an extremely important question -- especially when we consider that disparities in educational attainment have important implications for democracy.

As political scientists have noted, those who have higher levels of educational attainment are significantly more likely to engage in political activities like voting, contacting elected officials, contributing money to candidates and engaging in political protests. They are also more likely to be mobilized by political parties, candidates and other political groups.

Just as it was problematic that women trailed men as the recipients of college degrees well into the 20th century, the new gender gap that is driven by modest growth in men’s college degree attainment must be addressed.

I’m working on new research to consider the nature of this new gender gap, and I think that it is important to recognize that lackluster college enrollment and graduation rates for men of color is a particularly troubling factor shaping this trend. One of the most important lessons that I think Citizens by Degree reveals is the powerful role that lawmakers have played in addressing barriers that have limited higher educational participation among marginalized groups. In the face of this new trend whereby young men are falling behind, we have a responsibility to enact higher education programs that will help to address the problem.

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