Students who end first year with G.P.A. between 2.0 and 3.0 have been neglected by academic support programs, says research based on data from 60 institutions. Is this where colleges can have the biggest impact on retention?
Today’s college men, as a group, are not doing so well — in comparison with today’s college women and with college men of the past. Many men are simply not attending college at all; and of those who matriculate, they are not graduating in large numbers, again, as compared to women and to previous generations of men. Coming out of high school, they are not as well prepared for college. They are reading less than girls and less than boys of older generations. In fact, if college admissions were gender-blind, the vast majority of students at our most selective colleges would be women.
While at college, men are less engaged in their studies and in student life, and they receive lower grades and fewer honors. (Men in STEM courses, i.e., science, technology, engineering, and math, are the exception.) On campus, they exhibit higher rates of alcohol and substance abuse and commit more social conduct violations. College men use fewer student services and are more reluctant to seek help and attend support programs. In short, men are getting less out of their college experience, and they are not taking it upon themselves to do something about it.
All that may strike us as odd, or it used to. Now it seems to be on everyone’s mind, especially parents of boys. Even a recent issue of Scouting magazine (May/June 2013) ran a cover story on how to promote literacy among boys. Historically, though, we have tended to think of men in general as powerful and privileged, and it would be reasonable to expect college men to be higher-achieving. In a society that values education and where education is often the pathway to success for the middle class, it would make sense for men to be doing better, especially with the awareness that most of our older and more prestigious colleges — the very models of higher education — were established with men in mind.
What is stranger still is that, unlike the performance of other groups, we often struggle for an explanation of college men’s experience, their lack of success. Back in 2004, I expressed it this way in an article: “When the problem of the success of college women was first articulated, we quickly developed an explanation — sexism. And when the problem of the success of college persons of color was addressed, we readily found a similar explanation — racism. But when it comes getting at the underlying cause of the lack of success of college men, we seem to be at a loss.” When feminist, critical race, and other explanatory systems were developed, they relied, in part, on differences in power to explain the experience of women, persons of color, and other oppressed groups — in other words, the relatively powerless, and not the obviously powerful. That is where men’s studies can help: both in understanding why college men may be struggling and what we can do about it.
Men’s studies is an emerging field of knowledge concerned primarily with men’s experience, identity, and development throughout the life course. In so far as it focuses on what men are (social reality); what we think men are (stereotypes); and what we would like men to be (gender ideal); men’s studies could be described as the study of masculinities. Fundamentally, it studies men as men, and not as generic human beings. In his classic essay, “The Case for Men’s Studies,” Harry Brod said it best: Men’s studies is “the study of masculinity as a specific male experience, rather than a universal paradigm for human experience.”
Following from Brod, I wrote that a “men’s studies of college men would be a study of college as a specific male experience rather than a universal human experience.” In other words, instead of talking about students we should be talking about male students, female students, etc.
At bottom, what men’s studies teaches us, and where it can play a role in improving the lives of college men, is the fundamental insight that the totality of men’s experience cannot be explained by men’s power alone. True, objectively speaking, men as a group may still have power over women as a group; however, subjectively, individual men do not necessarily feel powerful, or behave as if they were in control. That is because many men engage in harmful, self-destructive behaviors linked to messages about manhood, or feel they do not measure up to the gender ideal, or are burdened by harmful stereotypes of what it means to be a man.
They are also socialized not to express their feelings, report symptoms, reveal their vulnerability, or otherwise deal in healthy ways with their emotions. And when it comes to learning, they learn at an early age that “school is for girls.” Masculinity leaves men feeling shamed and disempowered, suffering the negative consequences of their own notions of manhood and their own aversion to female identified values and attributes.
Worse yet, after steering men in the wrong direction, masculinity — insidiously and tragically — interferes with help-seeking behavior. No wonder so many men struggle in college. On campus, college women more likely to be sober and involved and men are drinking more — and more often — and are more distracted. College women in distress are more likely to seek out counseling centers or are referred by a friend, while college men become silent or act out. Informed by men’s studies, we can better design programs and services for college men, with men in mind. Hobart College, a men’s college where I am a dean and faculty member, offers a program for first-year men, Men’s Lives, which includes four mandated workshops on sexual assault prevention, men’s health and wellness, career and family, and diversity from a men’s perspective. We believe it has made a difference in the retention and success of our college men.
In closing, nothing I have said here invalidates or is inconsistent with feminist or social justice perspectives. On the contrary, most men’s studies work is “pro-feminist,” geared toward men, but compatible with best practices for college women. Men’s studies does not bash college men or re-privilege them, but, in the words of Victor Seidler, simply asks college men to take responsibility for their actions and make the right choices for college success. To modify a phrase coined by Adrienne Rich, the role of men’s studies is to exhort us to “take men students seriously.”
In the hope of improving American higher education, President Obama set a goal in 2009 of improving college degree attainment rates from 40 percent to 60 percent by 2020. This represents a 50 percent increase in attainment rates. This does not seem to me to be an outlandish objective. Indeed, we accomplished just such a 50 percent improvement at my college over an eight-year period. It happened by accident, but we learned something from it about the kinds of things that might help one meet such a goal intentionally. Here is the story.
It happened “by accident” because we did not set out to reduce attrition or increase graduation rates. Instead, we fixed things at the college that were not working well or were broken. It was an ad hoc process, with no particular order. Indeed, progress was often slowed for want of adequate funding. But with a few years’ attention to improving conditions for living and learning, we suddenly discovered we had another problem to address: We had a larger student body than we had intended because fewer students were leaving. As problems go, this was a nice one to have.
Let me give examples of the kinds of changes that produced this happy result.
We repaired physical facilities that had fallen into disrepair through petty acts of vandalism. And we found ways to increase student self-policing, which led to greater student pride in their campus facilities.
Since freshmen, as a general rule, were responsible for the largest portion of misbehavior on campus, we increased upper-class presence in freshman dorms, doubled the number of adult senior residents, and built new dormitories to bring back to campus a larger percentage of upperclassmen.
There were parts of the academic program where our students needed more help than they could get in class. So we established a formal group of paid student mentors to help individuals with their classroom studies.
Medical problems were the single greatest cause of students' leaving during the academic year. So we improved the quality and number of our medical, nursing and counseling staff.
We added a substantial competitive paid internship program that allowed students to build their own internships over the summer. This helped to greatly decrease the anxiety among upperclassmen about their future job prospects.
For students who felt the need to leave for financial reasons, we established a crisis fund, from which they could seek up to $3,000 to tide them over through an emergency.
These examples may sound familiar to experienced campus program administrators. But my point is that every college is going to have a different problem to solve at a different time. Each campus community has a better sense of itself and its needs than someone from outside. The only way we can improve student retention substantially is to support a wide range of self-identified improvement efforts at each college and university.
Every change identified above had a cost attached to it, sometimes quite significant. We did not spend our scarce resources on measuring the retention effects of each program. Instead we continued to invest in programs and improvements that our students and faculty told us would be helpful and good in themselves. Higher retention rates seem to have been an inevitable byproduct.
What we could have used was a start-up grant to help us test ideas before building them into our operating budget. Fortunately, funds were available to us from private sources. But imagine the impact that a grant program could have on such efforts — a program designed not to provide solutions from above but to support individual campus efforts toward meeting President Obama’s 2020 college completion goal.
Here is an idea for such a program that would be simple to administrate and extremely helpful, especially to the smaller institutions across the country that are the front-line providers of educational opportunities to first-generation college students and the seriously disadvantaged. The Department of Education could make a block grant to one of our national college presidential associations, or to the various state associations.
I imagine some of these associations would be eager to help ease the burden on both the department and the colleges in administering such start-up or incentive-based programs for their members, allowing member institutions to apply for such grants as would help achieve the purposes I have described.
I think it is bad public policy to have institutions breaking their backs to chase government money. Instead, government money should be following the need and investing in the efforts that local administrators and teachers believe will help keep their students in school, or better yet, investing in the programs that are already working to achieve the president’s objectives.
Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John's College, in Annapolis.