From the Desk of Barbara Robertson

Last month marked the 49th anniversary of Title IX’s passage by Congress. Though widely mischaracterized as a sports-equity law, Title IX in fact bars all forms of sex-based discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal funding. One potent data point adduced by the statute’s proponents during congressional deliberations was the underrepresentation of women on college and university campuses nationally.

What a difference half a century makes. Today, it is men who are underrepresented among college students, and the trend shows little sign of moderating. Some observers say it is accelerating.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC), men comprised just over 40 percent of enrollment at U.S. universities and colleges last fall. Five decades ago, the proportions were reversed, leading to efforts such as Title IX. The question is, do educators view this reversal with alarm, and if so what is to be done about it?

If it were simply a matter of last fall’s enrollment numbers skewing in one direction, perhaps there would be less cause for concern. If anything, though, the pandemic seems to be hastening a trend already much in evidence for decades. In fact, according to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, the last year that men earned more bachelor’s degrees than women in the United States was 1981! (U.S women began earning more master’s degrees in 1987, and overtook their male counterparts in Ph.D. attainment 15 years ago.)

According to a Hechinger Report analysis of figures from the NSCRC, while postsecondary education enrollment overall dropped 2.5 percent last fall compared to the year prior, the decline among men was more than seven times as steep as that among women. We have seen a similar shift at the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara. During our most recent awards cycle, female applicants outnumbered males by more than 50 percent.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many young men are electing to forgo college in favor of work so they can contribute to their families’ finances in the wake of the pandemic. This of course does not explain the long-term trend.

The implications for all of us are clear, however. Men without vocational training or a college degree have fewer professional options, and are more likely to face economic hardship. In turn, a growing number of disaffected men will only widen our nation’s socioeconomic and political divides.

Educators are taking notice, but consensus on a path forward has yet to emerge. Perhaps we should start by affirming the value of postsecondary education for all citizens, regardless of demographics.

“It’s a national crisis,” Luis Ponjuan, an associate professor of higher education administration at Texas A&M University, is quoted as saying in a Hechinger Report article on the subject. I tend to agree.