Episode 136: Too Few Male Students at College?

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Today’s episode in our series Researching College Options focuses on a trend in college enrollment that you might have missed entirely. But if you have a son at home, it might be of particular interest to you–especially if your son is in the early days of high school (or even younger!).

1. A Quick Historical Look at Men in College

Let’s look back for a moment at the history of male students in U.S. colleges. We wrote about this back in our first book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, when we discussed the very real college option for your teenager of attending a single-sex institution vs. a coeducational institution. Here is what we said then:

Colleges and universities that were started in America’s earliest days were all institutions for men. They were all single-sex institutions then.

Seven of the eight well-known Ivy League institutions served only male students when they were founded in the 1600s and 1700s: the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, Princeton, Harvard, and Yale. Among the Ivies, only Cornell, the youngest of the Ivies, was founded as a co-educational university, which took as its mission from its first day to enroll both men and women.

As time went on, many Ivies created a “sister” school for women: the University of Pennsylvania had its College for Women, Columbia had Barnard, Brown had Pembroke, and Harvard had Radcliffe. Of these, only Barnard remains.

The tradition of single-sex colleges is particularly strong in the Northeast, perhaps because that is where so many of our country’s oldest higher education institutions are located. In addition to Barnard, women’s colleges in the Northeast include Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Simmons College, Smith College, and Wellesley College. But there are well-known women’s colleges located in other regions of the U.S. as well–like Mills College and Scripps College in California, Stephens College in Missouri, Hollins University and Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, Saint Mary’s College (the sister school of the University of Notre Dame) in Indiana, and Agnes Scott College and Spelman College in Georgia. Spelman has the distinction of also being an excellent HBCU. Interestingly and for whatever reason (probably rooted in financial issues), some of these women’s colleges now allow men to enroll in their graduate programs only, thus maintaining the traditional women’s college atmosphere for their undergraduate residential students. Today, there are just over 40 women’s colleges in the U.S.

Oddly, only a handful of men’s colleges remain, perhaps partly because now there are actually more women than men going to college. The men’s college you have most likely heard of is Morehouse College, which is an academically rigorous HBCU located in Georgia and which is the men’s counterpart to Spelman. Morehouse has a roster of famous alumni, ranging from Martin Luther King, Jr., to Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee. Here are two more appealing men’s colleges: Hampden-Sydney College, which was founded in 1775 in Virginia and has a long and fascinating history (Patrick Henry and James Madison were among its first Trustees); and Wabash College, which is located in Indiana and was cited in the book Colleges That Change Lives as an institution that is successful in creating engaged students, who become leaders in their chosen fields.

While most single-sex institutions have opened their doors to the opposite sex over the years and especially in the past 50 years, those that remain carry on a tradition that their graduates wholeheartedly support. Some of their graduates–and indeed their families–believe that students can focus better on their studies when they are not being distracted by social interactions with the opposite sex in the classroom. Some of their graduates believe that students will develop a stronger sense of community and camaraderie with their classmates in single-sex institutions. Some of their graduates appreciate the histories and philosophies of these institutions–especially perhaps graduates of women’s colleges who feel that they are better supported as young women and are encouraged to set and pursue whatever education and career goals they can imagine for themselves.

Clearly, there are great reasons for your teenager to choose to apply to and attend a single-sex institution, as we have said before, but there are also great reasons for your teenager to choose a coeducational institution. What is happening now, however, is that some coeducational institutions–institutions that some students chose to attend precisely because they were coeducational–are losing their balance between male and female students in a way that no one would have predicted 40 years ago. Let’s look at why.

2. Male College Enrollment Today

In a very interesting August article, which you should read in its entirety in The Hechinger Report (which also appeared in The Atlantic), reporter Jon Marcus gave us these facts and figures:

Where men once went to college in proportions far higher than women–58 percent to 42 percent as recently as the 1970s–the ratio has now almost exactly reversed.

This fall, women will comprise more than 56 percent of students on campuses nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Some 2.2 million fewer men than women will be enrolled in college this year. And the trend shows no sign of abating. By 2026, the department estimates, 57 percent of college students will be women. . . .

Reeling from a years-long decline in overall enrollment, colleges and universities nationwide are vying for all the students they can get, and suddenly paying new attention to bolstering the number of men who apply. (quoted from the article)

At this point, I think we might say either “You’ve come a long way, baby” to any young women in the audience or “Where will it end?” Of course, for many years, we lived in a world where more males than females went to college, so is it a problem if those figures are now reversed? Maybe not, unless you have a son at home, and you are wondering if this trend will affect him–either positively or negatively–as he looks toward college and his future.

3. Is College Too Late To Fix This?

The Hechinger Report article goes on to explain some likely causes for the state of male college enrollment. Marcus reports:

Though advocates complain that few in higher education are doing enough to keep those men who do get there from leaving, there’s consensus that men’s reluctance to enroll in the first place isn’t necessarily the colleges’ fault. The problem has its origins as early as primary school, only to be fueled later on by economic forces that discourage men from believing a degree is worth the time and money.

“It’s funny that it’s the colleges that are finally seeing this issue and trying to resolve it,” said Patrick Maloney, president of the Nativity School, a Jesuit Catholic middle school in the central Massachusetts city of Worcester that tries to aim low-income boys toward college. That’s because, by the time students reach college age, Maloney said, “It’s way too late. You’ve already lost them. Maybe [admissions officers] should be going into middle schools and [should] start talking to fifth-graders about the benefits of college education.”

Or even earlier than that. The “anti-school, anti-education sentiment” in boys has roots in kindergarten, when they’re slower to learn to read than girls, said Jim Shelley, manager of the Men’s Resource Center at Lakeland Community College in Ohio. Girls at the primary and secondary level worldwide far outperform boys in reading, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

That disparity continues until, “by eighth or ninth grade, boys have lost interest,” Shelley said. (quoted from the article)

All this is likely true, but none of it accounts for the decline in male college enrollment. Why? Because I believe all of this was true 40 years ago when there were more male than female students in colleges. With that said, we will, nonetheless, underline the importance of not waiting till high school to engage actively about college-going with any younger children you have at home. For many students in high schools my nonprofit organization has evaluated, it is clear that they gave up on the goal of pursuing a college education much earlier, just as the article says. I believe that this is especially–and unfortunately–true for low-income students in urban school districts.

And here are some additional issues that are concerning if you have a son at home, according to this article:

Men who do enroll in college, at whatever age, are more likely than women to drop out, and they graduate at lower rates, the Education Department reports. That’s one thing universities and colleges can address directly, but generally don’t, Shelley, [manager of the Men’s Resource Center at Lakeland Community College], said.

Through 21 years running one of the few campus support centers exclusively for men, he said, “I’ve thought it can only get better. But it just has gone nowhere. Not only are there not programs like ours that are supportive of male students, but at most college campuses the attitude is that men are the problem versus men have problems, too. . . .”

Meanwhile, boys in many American communities don’t see male role models who have been to college and succeeded, said Keith Bullock at Kentucky’s Berea College (56 percent female). Bullock is coordinator of programs to support male students, many of them from Appalachia. “They don’t have those examples of doctors and lawyers and professionals.”

. . . The male students under his care are black, white and Hispanic, Bullock said, and they all face similar pressures. He escorts them to the counseling and advising offices and texts them every day to make sure they get to class on time and know when tests are scheduled. “My guys,” he calls them. He also works with them on study habits and time management. “It’s very challenging. It’s very emotional. Sometimes I’m hugging them up and there’s times when I feel I have to curse them out.” (quoted from the article)

4. What Does This Mean for You?

So, if you have a son at home, perhaps The Hechinger Report article has given you some new perspectives and some new facts to think with. But there is also some information here for those of you with a daughter at home. As we said in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students, the gender breakdown on a college campus is one thing prospective applicants might want to consider. And now that we know that male students are sometimes in shorter supply than you might have expected, I am glad that we included a question about gender breakdown on the College Profile Worksheet. We give the Worksheet to students to complete for colleges they are interested in applying to (it is found at the end of our book). Here is some of what we wrote in the new book:

If you look at the enrollment statistics for many colleges, you will notice that some are split pretty evenly between male and female students (say, 46 percent vs. 54 percent), while others are way out of balance (say, 30 percent vs. 70 percent). Sometimes colleges that are out of balance can be explained by their history (for example, they were once women’s colleges) or by the types of majors they are best known for (given that some majors, unfortunately, continue to attract more students of one gender). If you want a college to reflect the general undergraduate college student population, it is interesting to note that enrollment figures overall in the fall of 2014 showed that 56 percent of undergraduate students were female. So, if a college is better balanced than that (in other words, closer to 50/50), it might well be working hard to achieve that balance.

Let’s look at a few examples. Carleton College (a great private liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota) is 53 percent female and 47 percent male. Carleton is working at it, we would say. Oddly enough, the gigantic University of Minnesota (the excellent public flagship university in the Twin Cities) gets even closer–at 51 percent female and 49 percent male. Not too far away, the Milwaukee School of Engineering (a Wisconsin college that specializes in engineering and technical subjects, though not exclusively) posts a 24 percent female and 76 percent male enrollment–for perhaps obvious reasons.

So, if gender balance at a college is important to your teenager, you all should check it out for each college on your teenager’s list. If you have never thought about it, you should think about it now. By the way, as we said in our new book, “we have not yet seen data reported and presented across colleges on enrollment of students with gender identities other than male and female. However, if you are looking for a college that is particularly accepting of more diverse gender identities, that is a topic that can and should be pursued by looking further on the college’s website and by calling the Admission Office and asking about relevant data and policies.”

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Episode 84: Assignment #4–Looking at College Enrollment Breakdowns

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We hope that all of you parents and/or high schoolers have finished the first three assignments we gave you for starting or continuing your college search process. We have a handful more ahead. There’s nothing like having homework all summer. However, if these assignments can make your autumn a little better, you will be glad you spent the time now. When everyone else is running around looking up information about colleges, you can be relaxing. Sort of.

Episode 84: Looking at College Enrollment Breakdowns on USACollegeChat podcast

In your first three assignments, as you will recall, you have expanded your teenager’s long summer list of college options–on your way to narrowing it later on in the fall months. You have also checked out four key admission standards for each of the colleges on that hopefully long list–namely, average high school GPA, high school class rank, SAT or ACT scores of admitted and/or enrolled freshmen, and both required and recommended courses to be completed in high school.

Now, our picture of your assignments is like this: You should have an Assignment #1 for each college on your teenager’s long summer list of college options–that is, the two-page worksheet you should have downloaded that calls for an overall description of the college, including lots of key facts and figures you should have filled in. Then, stapled to that, you should have an Assignment #2 worksheet and an Assignment #3 worksheet; these two describe the four college admission standards for the college named in Assignment #1. So, in other words, we think you are building little stapled-together packets of information for each college on your list. These will be invaluable to you when it is time to sift through them in September–and, please, not before September–when you start to narrow down the list to the colleges your teenager will actually apply to.

As we have said previously, the more of this research your teenager does, the better it is for you. Oh, we mean, the better it is for your teenager, because your teenager is likely to remember better what he or she has researched personally and because your teenager is learning how to research a topic and get information when it is not always presented in an easy-to-find manner. I can tell you that, as an experienced professional, it would take me quite a while to fill out college profiles like Assignments #1, #2, and #3–and sometimes, as you will see, the information will simply not be available anywhere.

1. Your Assignment #4

Download the Assignment #4 Worksheet

In this episode, we will examine various breakdowns of the enrollment of each of the colleges of your teenager’s long summer list of college options. You will recall that, on the Assignment #1 worksheets, your teenager had to fill in the undergraduate enrollment of each college on the list as well as the graduate enrollment (if any). Assignment #4 is going to ask you to take a closer look at the students who make up that enrollment?just in case what you find out would have any effect on your teenager’s interest in a college or in your interest in sending him or her to that college.

By the way, whether a college (or, more often, a university) has graduate students at all is an important aspect of choosing a college for some students. Some students and parents like the idea of advanced scholarship being available on campus and of professional schools (like law and medicine and journalism) being right there either just to add prestige or to serve as the next stop for a successful undergrad. On the other hand, some students and parents think that graduate students distract the college from paying adequate attention to the needs and education of the undergraduates and that too many graduate students (rather than professors) end up teaching the freshman-level courses in too many disciplines.

Whichever way you think about it, knowing whether there are graduate students at a college and how many of them there are is one reasonable thing to consider in choosing a college and in narrowing down your teenager’s summer list of college options when the fall months come.

So, here we go with four enrollment breakdowns of the undergraduate student enrollment that you might want to examine. Get ready to fill in those Assignment #4 worksheets!

Download the Assignment #4 Worksheet

2. Part-Time vs. Full-Time Study

When your teenager was looking up enrollment at the colleges on his or her long summer list of college options, you all might have noticed that there were often both full-time enrollment and part-time enrollment figures. (By the way, sometimes an enrollment figure given on a “Quick Facts” kind of page on a college’s website is not explained as being full time, part time, or both. So, be careful.) Is the percentage of full-time undergraduate students something that you and your teenager want to consider when choosing colleges to apply to?

Some colleges–especially prestigious private four-year colleges–have relatively few part-time students compared to, say, large public universities with many schools and many diverse programs. For example, Kenyon College (a great private liberal arts college in Gambier, Ohio) has just 1 percent part-time undergraduate enrollment. On the other hand, Kent State University (a good public university, though not Ohio’s flagship university, at the main campus in Kent, Ohio) has 19 percent part-time undergraduate enrollment. Or, to take a different state, Hunter College (one of the best campuses of the public City University of New York) has 28 percent part-time undergraduate enrollment, while New York University (an excellent private university about 60 blocks away in Manhattan) has just 5 percent part-time undergraduate enrollment. You get the picture.

Obviously, students could choose to study part time at a college for many reasons, including financial constraints, family responsibilities, and work obligations. Part-time students are not necessarily worse students, though I imagine that they might have that reputation. But part-time students do likely live fuller, more complicated, more non-campus-oriented lives than traditional freshmen enrolling right out of high school, especially if those freshmen are living on campus. As a result, colleges with high part-time enrollment might have a bit of a different feel on campus compared to colleges where almost all students are there full time (and, furthermore, where many of them are living in campus residential housing).

College Navigator, the exceptional online search tool provided by the National Center for Education Statistics, which we have mentioned many times, has an excellent part-time vs. full-time enrollment display under the “Enrollment” heading for each college you search. Trust me when I tell you that it will be quicker for your teenager to get this information from College Navigator than to find it on a college’s own website–though the college’s website might have just slightly more updated information in some cases.

Have your teenager do the necessary college searches and write down the part-time vs. full-time enrollment figures for undergraduate enrollment on the Assignment #4 worksheet.

3. Gender

Unless your teenager has been talking about going to a single-sex college–remember that women’s colleges (there are just over 40) vastly outnumber men’s colleges (there are only a handful)–this statistic might not be on your radar screen. But it might be something worth thinking about, depending on your teenager’s comfort level with members of the opposite sex in an education setting.

If you look at the enrollment statistics for many colleges, you will notice that some are split pretty evenly between male and female students (say, 46 percent vs. 54 percent), while others are way out of balance (say, 30 percent vs. 70 percent). Sometimes colleges that are out of balance can be explained by their history (for example, they were once women’s colleges) or by the types of majors they are best known for (given that some majors, unfortunately, continue to attract more students of one gender). If you want a college to reflect the general undergraduate college student population, it is interesting to note that enrollment figures overall in the fall of 2014 showed that 56 percent of undergraduate students were female. So, if a college is better balanced than that (in other words, closer to 50-50), it is working hard at it, we would say.

Let’s look at a few examples. Carleton College (a great private liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota) is 53 percent female and 47 percent male. Carleton is working hard at it, we would say. Interestingly, the gigantic University of Minnesota (the excellent public flagship university in the Twin Cities) gets even closer–at 51 percent female and 49 percent male. Yet, not too far away, the Milwaukee School of Engineering (a Wisconsin college that specializes in engineering and technical subjects, though not exclusively) posts a 24 percent female and 76 percent male enrollment, for perhaps obvious, though unfortunate, reasons.

I want to note here that I have not seen data reported and presented across colleges on enrollment of students with gender identities other than male and female. However, if your teenager is looking for a college that is particularly accepting of other gender identities, that is a topic that can and should be pursued by calling the admissions office and asking about relevant data and policies.

Have your teenager do the necessary college searches and write down the gender enrollment figures for undergraduate enrollment on the Assignment #4 worksheet. (By the way, we will be talking about single-sex colleges later on this summer.)

4. Race/Ethnicity

Unless your teenager has been talking about going to an HBCU (historically black college or university) or about seeking out Hispanic-serving institutions, you might not have been thinking hard about the racial and/or ethnic background of students at a college of interest to your family. But, again, it might be something worth considering, depending on your teenager’s comfort level with members of other racial and ethnic groups in an education setting. For example, if your teenager comes from a racially and ethnically mixed high school, he or she would likely feel comfortable in a similar sort of college population. However, if your teenager comes from a high school that is not racially and ethnically diverse, it might be even more important to find a college that is–in order to prepare him or her better for the world of work and for life.

We have talked about the racial and ethnic diversity of colleges at USACollegeChat, and we noted in Episode 58 that some colleges–including large public flagship universities–are not nearly as diverse as we would like to see or as we might have guessed they were.

For example, let’s look first at the percentage of “black, or African American, non-Hispanic/Latino” students who are “degree-seeking undergraduates,” according to the figures submitted to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (known as IPEDS) at the National Center for Education Statistics. Here are the percentages for some well-known flagship universities that we have discussed in earlier USACollegeChat episodes (these data are for the 2014-2015 academic year):

These are large and small flagships, highly selective and less selective flagships, and geographically diverse flagships. I have to say that I was astonished at the tiny fraction of black undergraduates at some of them. While we often looked at the racial and ethnic breakdown of students during our nationwide virtual tour of colleges, these small numbers seem to have a bigger impact when they are all lined up together.

Here is are the percentages for what IPEDS calls “Hispanic/Latino” “degree-seeking undergraduates”:

These percentages aren’t any higher. In fact, when combining the two figures, you get a range of just 8 to 17 percent black and Hispanic/Latino undergraduates at these flagship universities.

Interestingly, I know of quite a few very selective private colleges and universities where the percentages of black and Hispanic/Latino students exceed these public university numbers–like Columbia University with 7 percent black and 13 percent Hispanic/Latino undergraduates or Pomona College with 7 percent black and 14 percent Hispanic/Latino undergraduates or Rice University with 7 percent black and 15 percent Hispanic/Latino undergraduates–all exceeding the upper range of the flagship universities we examined. That is worth thinking about.

Have your teenager do the necessary college searches and write down on the Assignment #4 worksheet the racial/ethnic background enrollment figures for undergraduate enrollment for whatever groups you are interested in considering–black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, American Indian or Alaska native, and more.

5. Home Residence

Well, here is a topic that is familiar to USACollegeChat listeners. We have spent lots of time in our episodes talking about how important we think it is for students to get outside their geographic comfort zone when considering–and even attending–college. That was the motivation for our nationwide virtual tour of colleges in every state (Episodes 27 through 53), and it was the motivation for Assignment #1, where we strongly encouraged you to put one college from every state on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. We firmly believe that the best school for your teenager might not be located in your home state.

It is also interesting to see just how many undergraduate students at a college are from the state where that college is located. Generally, I think it is better to go to a college where a student will meet other students from all over–that is, all over the U.S., but also from all over the world. Living and working with students of all national backgrounds in a relatively safe and protected environment, like college, is one way for students to gain the interpersonal skills they will need for a lifetime.

So, geographic diversity of college students is a big plus for me. It also turns out to be a big plus for colleges, as we have said many times at USACollegeChat. Almost all colleges like the idea of having students from all over the country and, indeed, from all over the world. Many, many colleges proudly say on their websites how many states and how many foreign countries their students come from. While public universities have a duty to serve the students of their own state–and while some take that more seriously than others–even they like to draw students from other states.

All that is to say that your teenager might get into a college far away from home that he or she could not get into close to home–because, for that faraway college, your teenager brings desirable geographic diversity. We will talk more about this is an upcoming episode.

Let’s look at a few public university examples. The University of Alaska at its flagship campus in Fairbanks enrolls 90 percent in-state students (for reasons we might guess), 9 percent out-of-state students, and 1 percent foreign students. The University of Washington at its flagship campus in Seattle enrolls 66 percent in-state students, 18 percent out-of-state students, and 15 percent foreign students. But the University of New Hampshire at its flagship campus in Durham actually enrolls just 41 percent in-state students, 58 percent out-of-state students, and 1 percent foreign students. So, just from these three examples, you can see how different the make-up of public flagship universities can be when it comes to where they are getting their students.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, private colleges are all over the map, too, when it comes to the make-up of their student bodies–thought it is clear that highly selective private colleges enjoy boasting about the many states and many countries their students hail from.

Have your teenager do the necessary college searches and write down on the Assignment #4 worksheet the student residence enrollment figures for undergraduate enrollment. By the way, a college’s own website will often break down enrollment even further than College Navigator to tell you things like the five states most represented in undergraduate enrollment or in the new freshman class or the percent of students who come from neighboring states or who come from the region the college is located in. All of that might be food for thought as you consider colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college options.

Download the Assignment #4 Worksheet

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
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