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Three women and one man in graduation gowns wait for their names to be called.

Women are more likely than men to complete their academic programs.

Getty Images/E+/SDI Productions

Men’s participation in postsecondary education and their completion rates have been front and center in higher education in recent weeks in both the United States and Canada. 

A recent report released by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario showed that nearly one in four students who enrolled in a postsecondary program in Ontario failed to complete a credential after eight years. However, when accounting for gender, men’s noncompletion of a credential was over one in three.

Similar to the findings from Canada, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center in the United States released data on completion rates, which showed that only 58.4 percent of men completed their program within six years, while women completed their programs at a higher rate, 65.6 percent. Leaving aside the different definition of completion (six versus eight years) used by the two studies, the gender divide is clear and should be concerning to those who work in higher education.

Compounding the issue of completion is the general lag in participation in higher education among men in both countries. A 2002 Statistics Canada report showed that men were less likely to enroll in postsecondary education over all, with 1.2 million women enrolled, compared with 930,000 men. In the United States, a similar gap emerges: a 2021 report showed that women account for 59.5 percent of all college students, while men accounted for just over 40 percent of enrollment.

I am cautious to make an overgeneralization, as men are still the majority in science, technology, engineering and math programs, despite incentives to improve gender diversity. It is quite clear that there are still massive gaps for women in higher education, especially at leadership levels. But we have gender issues on campus. We must and should celebrate the fact that women access higher education, and thus their career outcomes have improved over time, but we need to think about how we address men’s comparative lack of success.

As a student affairs professional and dean of students working in higher education, success of all students is front and center for me. I fundamentally believe that each person, if admitted to a program, should have the opportunity to succeed. Consequently, given the facts, if we as a profession are not paying attention to the gender gap in our colleges and universities, I believe we are failing to live up to our professional standards.

So what do we need to do? I have some thoughts.

  1. Look at the data.

I am jealous of some of the range of data sources our neighbors to the south have on their campuses. In Canada, we are severely limited by the data we capture beyond gender that will help us get into the weeds of the matter.

That said, it is not just the question of men, but also which men and from what background are struggling. Is your campus capturing and tracking through student information systems or CRMs the right information so you can target interventions? It might be socioeconomic, race or sexual orientation when you dive down further to work with staff and faculty on support systems or programs on campus.

  1. Address uneven professional development and awareness.

Despite various efforts related to raising the level of preparedness of the profession when it comes to serving men, I believe there is still a gap in the understanding of how the student affairs profession might address this issue.

While I know there have been efforts made by NASPA, with the Men’s and Masculinities Knowledge Communities and innovative men’s support programming at the University of Vermont, there are massive gaps in research, and subsequently programming, related to men, especially on campuses in Canada. Frankly, from a dollars-and-cents perspective, we aren’t going to solve retention problems without addressing the men’s problem on campus.

  1. Discuss men’s identity.

Social media has seen an explosion of various examples of “alpha males” as a response to what is a purported and false premise: the feminization of men’s identity. The allure of a return to dominant male role models does a disservice to men. First, it dissuades men from seeking help when they need it, because asking for help may be seen as be a sign of weakness or not what “real” men do. Additionally, this toxic form of masculinity increases gender-based violence, which is a known issue on campus.

Consequently, we need to weave in new student-focused programming that advances conversations on healthy and contemporary masculine identity.

Student affairs professionals in North America are known for their roles in building community, solving problems and empowering student success. The gap in men’s achievement on campus is persistent problem that needs to be acknowledged by the profession. Through data, professional development and addressing the impacts of toxic male identities, I am confident we can move the needle.

Joe Henry is the dean of students at King’s University College at Western University. You can follow him at @askdeanjoe on Instagram and X.

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