Why Are More Women Than Men Going to College?

ANALYSIS

on December 06 2011 9:22 AM
Almost 60% of students in US colleges are now women.
Almost 60% of students in U.S. colleges are now women. Flickr/Creative Common

Women are attending and obtaining degrees from U.S. colleges and universities at a pace exceeding that of men. In concordance with the burgeoning women’s rights movement that exploded in the 1960s and 1970s and provided a plethora of new opportunities for advancement, this trend has translated into ever-increasing college enrollment for women.

On some co-ed campuses, the girls outnumber the boys by a ratio of almost three-to-one – an astounding figure.

First, the stark numbers.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), between 1999 and 2009, overall college enrollment increased by 38 percent, from 14.8 million to 20.4 million. But, over that time span, the number of enrolled females climbed by 40 percent, versus 35 percent for men.

Moreover, NCES stated, between 1970 and 2001, women ‘graduated’ from being the minority on U.S. undergraduate campuses to becoming the majority -- jumping from 42 percent to 56 percent of total enrollment. NCES projects that by 2013, 57 percent of undergraduates will be female.

Women are also closing the gap in the realm of advance degrees.

According to the Chronicle for Higher Education, between 1997-1998 and 2007-2008, the number of women earning doctorates soared by 68 percent, while women getting master's degrees increased by 54 percent.

As of 2008, women accounted for 61 percent of all master's degrees, and 51 percent of all doctorates being awarded.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education boldly declared: “women now account for a disproportionate share of the enrollments of higher-education institutions at every degree level and are likely to become an even more dominant presence on campuses over the coming decade.”

NCES projects that by 2019 women will represent 59 percent of total undergraduate enrollment and 61 percent of total post-baccalaureate enrollment. Since the late 1990s, NCES added, women have accounted for “about three-fourths” of the increase in the number of master's degrees awarded in the U.S. and “nearly all” of the growth in the number of professional degrees earned.

For African-Americans, the numbers are even more heavily in favor of women.

Linda Sax, professor in the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies at UCLA, told International Business Times: “The gender gap favoring women in college enrollments first appeared around 1980 and has continued to widen over time. The most significant widening of the gender gap occurred in the 1980s, with relatively smaller increases in the gap since then.”

For example, consider Providence College in Rhode Island -- the percentage of male students on campus has plunged from 100 percent in 1917 (when it was an all-male institution) to an estimated 41 percent for the graduating class of 2015.

Chris Lydon, Providence’s associate vice president and dean of admission, reportedly said that females first outnumbered males at the school in 1985; just ten years after the university became co-ed.

Lydon also said that on average; about seven out of 10 people in the top 10 of a high school's graduating class are now female.

But why is this happening? Are young women simply more ambitious and harder-working? Are men becoming increasingly disengaged from academia? It is unclear.

Sax cautions that while women are indeed attending college in record numbers, men are attending in record numbers as well.

“What has changed is the relative balance between men and women, since women's enrollments have risen faster than men's,” she said.

“Further, the growing gender gap in college enrollments is attributable primarily to increases in college attendance among women from groups historically under-represented in higher education -- namely, African Americans, Latinas, older students, and lower-income students.”

However, while more and more women are attending college, they remain significantly under-represented in corporate boardrooms, having run up against the proverbial ‘glass ceiling.’

An article in the Wall Street Journal recently stated: “Women now graduate from college in greater numbers than men and enter the workforce at similar rates. Yet at every career stage, men are more likely to advance than women.”

Dominic Barton, global managing director of McKinsey & Co., told the Journal: “The number of women participating in the workforce went from about 41 percent to 56 percent over a 40-year period. If they didn't join the work force, that would have been a 25 percent hit to GDP.”

He added: “But while we've seen a lot of progress over a 40-year period, our sense is that it's begun to plateau. I look at our own firm on that front, where we're trying to find the best talent in the world, and 25 percent of our intake are women, even though 58 percent of the college graduates are women.”

Barton further explained that at the entry-level, 53 percent of new hires are women. However, their participation rate steadily decrease as one ascends the corporate ladder -- 37 percent in lower-middle management; 28 percent at the vice-presidency level; then only 14 percent at the executive committee; then finally only a pitiful 3 percent at the highest echelons of corporate America.

Indeed, perhaps female under-representation in company management can be partially explained by plumbing deeper into the data of college enrollment.

According to The Chronicle for Higher Education, certain majors in university remain dominated by men (despite the steadily declining overall rate of male enrollment). For example, for the 2007-2008 academic year, women earned only 17 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded in engineering and engineering technologies. For computer and information sciences, women earned only 18 percent of bachelor's degrees.

In addition, perhaps the demands of motherhood may also negatively impact the presence of women at the highest rungs of corporations.

In the meantime, assuming these current trends persist, there may be some short-term impacts on demographics, birth and marriage rates. Presumably, if more and more women obtain high-paying corporate jobs, they will probably find the pool of suitable male partners shrinking.

In most cultures, whether it’s in the U.S., Europe or Asia, most women marry men in their same social class and income levels. If an “excessive” number of American women work at high-paying jobs and men increasingly fall into lower-paying jobs (or chronic unemployment), it is reasonable to assume that women will find it increasingly challenging to find suitable life partners.

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