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Reading Scores and the Gender Gap in College Enrollment

June 10, 2020

New research shows that boys' poor reading skills in adolescence and social attitudes about women attending college could help explain why fewer men than women enroll in higher education.

Researchers at the University of Missouri and the University of Essex in the United Kingdom analyzed postsecondary education enrollment data between 2011 and 2017 from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, national reading scores for 15- and 16-year-olds from the Program for International Student Assessment and social attitudes toward women pursuing university educations from the World Values Survey for their report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, according to a news release.

With these data, the researchers were able to predict the ratio of men and women attending college. Girls tend to score better on reading tests, according to David Geary, co-author of the paper and a professor at Mizzou. In countries where boys' reading scores are poor and social attitudes about women attending college are negative, there is gender parity in who attends college.

“Here, we studied a snapshot of reading achievements for boys and girls when they were 15 years old,” Geary said. “And with an understanding of how social attitudes are in various countries about girls going to college, we can predict the ratio of men and women attending college five years later.”

The results of the study show that not much will reduce the gender gap in college enrollment unless reading skills are improved at a young age.

“The practical implication is that equity in college enrollment is well out of reach at this time,” Geary said. “There is no good reason to expect that national reading levels for either gender will be sufficiently raised in the coming decade to change enrollment patterns. The way to counter that is to improve reading skills, but that improvement will have to start early in life. The reading gap between boys and girls is there from the very beginning of schooling, even in preschool.”

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Madeline St. Amour

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