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Enrollment Matters

Bringing male students back to college

Strategic and tactical opportunities to regain gender balance in enrollment
University Business, September 2016
Aaron Mahl is a vice president and consultant at Ruffalo Noel Levitz.
Aaron Mahl is a vice president and consultant at Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

Recent research studies have begun to recognize males as a new “at-risk” population. Achieving gender balance means different things to different institutions.

Technical programs with STEM-heavy curricula have traditionally struggled to attract female enrollments (though women are fast making inroads into these fields).

Large public universities and smaller liberal arts colleges, on the other hand, are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their male enrollments.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women now outpace men in educational attainment for the first time since 1940. This finding is not surprising given the fact that female enrollment at U.S. colleges has been higher than male enrollment since 1979.

The center projects that, by 2020, men will represent only 41 percent of college enrollees. Not only are fewer men attending postsecondary institutions, but a larger percentage of them are dropping out as well.

How can college and university leaders begin to shape their cohorts of entering students to achieve more gender balance in enrollment?

Calibrating goals to reality

For institutions struggling to attract males, reasonable goals should be considered. With a broad mix of academic and co-curricular programs, 45 percent to 50 percent male enrollment may be reached. However, for institutions that lack this diversity, 35 percent to 40 percent male enrollment may be an aspirational goal.

Colleges and universities must be proactive and intentional if they hope to overcome the demographic obstacles standing in the way of gender balance. Here’s how.

Academic and co-curricular programs

When was the last time your institution audited its academic offerings? Examining yields by academic division and/or program over a five- to seven-year period may reveal programs where you’ve lost male market share.

What programs are attracting a higher number of male admits? Your institution’s data will provide insight into how your programs are faring.

It is also important for institutional and academic leadership to consider their ability to attract a balanced gender representation to any future majors or programs that come online. STEM programs usually attract a higher percentage of males. Other programs that attract men include criminal justice, sport management and business.

Of course, before launching any academic program, conducting market research on expected returns and weighing those returns against the institution’s enrollment goals will be critical.

Athletic programs

Institutions have also used athletics to grow male enrollment. Beginning a football program can significantly boost male enrollment in a single cycle. Of course, as with any initiative, you should examine the trade-offs.

What is the start-up cost of beginning a new athletic program? What support services will be needed? What will be the impact on retention and campus culture?

Marketing to men

Focus groups of just young men or women could provide valuable insight regarding how your institution is perceived by the demographic it wants to attract. If you are looking to attract men, ask these questions: What type of language is used in your publications? Can male prospective students easily “see themselves” in your campus culture? Do you emphasize extracurricular activities such as athletics and hands-on classroom experiences? Do you segment your communication by gender?

Institutions have long segmented other communication based on their enrollment goals. Consider having a segment of recruitment materials designed just for males that highlights the features and advantages of your institution that are most likely to attract them.

Rethink search parameters

It is not uncommon for institutions to tailor search purchases of ACT/SAT names by academic criteria. Examining your search filters may reveal a larger number of males just below your GPA/test score cut-off.

Expanding your outreach may assist the institution in growing interest from qualified males who have not historically made it into your funnel. This approach should be targeted and measured. It will be important to examine your institutional data to see which males who fall below your search criteria have the highest propensity for success at your institution.

Transitional populations

Another target market to enroll more males is one who delayed a post-secondary education or stopped out of an earlier college try. Some research indicates men are more likely to put off college enrollment—opting instead for the military or a vocation right out of high school.

Assuring your institution has clear policies for accepting these —with the appropriate articulation agreements—can help those who are seeking a transfer institution in their search.

Academic support and engagement

Achieving an equitable gender ratio for many campuses will require not only enrolling more new males, but also retaining a larger percentage of those students already on campus. As such, best practices have begun to emerge, specifically related to advising. Terry Musser, associate director of enrollment and operations for the Division of Undergraduate Studies at Penn State University, and her colleagues studied men who struggled in their transition to college. The study recommended the following related to academic advising:

• Advisors need to watch for signs of vulnerability and intervene in a timely fashion. Practices that help identify issues include academic early warning systems, advising records that flag students at risk, assessments of preparation for college work, questionnaires about social readiness, and regular communication between advising and residence life.

• Because the advising relationship provides both personal and intellectual support, it’s imperative to help male students develop confidence that they belong in the institution and that they can gain value from engaging with it.

• The advising relationship may be perceived as quasi-parental and condescending. Advisors might consider arranging their offices so that students sit beside them—like video game players facing a computer—rather than sitting directly across from the student.

• Advisors can use every means possible—orientation, newsletters and individual advising sessions—to point out opportunities for engagement. Because showing up alone can be awkward, advisors might encourage men to attend orientation events in pairs or groups. They might use peer mentors to help new students form a group.

Mentoring males

With the growing acknowledgement of males being at risk, some institutions have taken a more proactive approach to mentoring. One example is the Minority Male Mentoring Program established in 2003 by the North Carolina Community College System. The goal of the program is to achieve greater persistence, graduation, and/or transfer rates.

Institutions that participate facilitate interactions between males in the program and key college staff. They also provide career counseling, student-to-student coaching and assistance in writing an academic plan.

John Evans, associate director for student life in the North Carolina Community College System, says the mentoring program has supported over 10,000 students working toward achieving their educational, professional and civic goals. Recent program modifications provide targeted interventions when they are most effective, ensure students don’t face unnecessary detours in attaining credentials, and help students understand requirements so they make informed decisions that lead to success.  

Given the demographic challenges and shifts, achieving gender balance won’t happen by accident. Institutional leadership needs to calibrate expectations based on their current realities and look for strategic opportunities with both recruitment and student success initiatives.

Aaron Mahl is a vice president and consultant at Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

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