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The widening gender gap.

Shifting student demographics will have significant impact on college admissions.
University Business, Sep 2004

Those college administrators responsible for admitting a new class of students each year have been aware for some time of the phenomenon we refer to as the gender shift. For the past 20 years more women than men have earned bachelor degrees, and in each successive academic year the gap is widening. In 2003, 712,000 women earned a bachelor's degree, compared to 531,000 men. More women than men received associate degrees, and 274,000 women attained master's degrees, compared to 194,000 men. Division I NCAA universities that study enrollment ratios carefully for the purpose of meeting Title IX requirements have reported a 54 percent female to 46 percent male ratio overall in their undergraduate student bodies.

All signs point to a widening of the gender gap in future years. This past year, 56 percent of ACT and 54 percent of SAT test takers were women. Although males continue to test higher on average on both of these admission tests, the differential has been narrowing every year. At the same time, high school females as a group are outperforming their male peers in the classroom, with disproportionate representation in the top deciles of their class and election to their school's National Honor Society.

The ramifications of this gender shift are significant. Given the emphasis on the part of most colleges to enhance the academic profile of their student body, more women are gaining admission as a result of their high school performance, strong curricular foundation, and test scores. There appears to be a growing pattern of more academically qualified women applying to selective four-year colleges of arts and sciences. Many of the flagship public universities now have a gender gap of 60 percent women to 40 percent men. A number of admissions deans have told us that qualified male students are becoming a new category of students in need of affirmative action! Some universities have found that in order to balance their incoming classes they have to admit a larger number of male applicants to their engineering and technology degree programs.

What does this pattern mean for college environments and, more significantly, the future leaders in the professions, business, and public sectors of our society? There are many dynamics to this demographic shift that need to be addressed by higher educational leaders. While much is being written about women's issues on college campuses, there appears to be less attention given to the issues surrounding young males. Here are some of the dynamics we find in our work which are affecting the gender shift:

High school males are less
interested in the concept of a
traditional liberal arts education.

* The cultural changes initiated by the women's movement a generation ago, which generated both greater expectations and opportunities, have encouraged the present generation of young women to set their sights on higher education as a pathway to independence and careers of their choosing. Young women today do not question whether they will develop a meaningful career, only which direction they will take once they have their degree.

* With the escalating goal of building the academic profile of their entering classes, colleges and universities are admitting a majority of candidates on the basis of top grade point averages, strong curriculum, class rank, and test scores. Since adolescent girls, on average, mature earlier than their male counterparts, admissions to college will be skewed by use of these standard criteria.

* High school males are less interested in the concept of a traditional liberal arts education that emphasizes the arts, humanities, social sciences, and pure sciences, and more concerned for a vocational or career-oriented curriculum and degree. A majority of male applicants indicate a preference for concentrating in business, technology, and engineering.

* The dramatic conversion to a technological and information based economy and the related job opportunities have persuaded many young men that there is a more direct and less expensive route to a good paying job through vocational training or training on the job.

* A significantly greater proportion of students of color and Hispanic students leave high school or college before graduating, especially males. College has not been as high a priority goal in many of their families due to few or no role models in their family. The cost of attaining a college degree seems insurmountable to many, and language barriers also hinder applications for college admission and financial aid (and sometimes decrease the chances of successful graduation). The prospect of accumulating large debts with no guarantee of a job upon completing college is a particularly daunting prospect.

* Students in socially and economically disadvantaged families are more likely to attend urban or rural schools facing the challenge of teaching at-risk students with the limitations of adequate funding, facilities, and staff. Typically only a small percentage of those who persist in graduating high school enroll in higher educational institutions.

* Some of the factors mentioned here result in a higher representation on college campuses of male students who are white or Asian, are from middle- to higher-income backgrounds, and who attend high schools that enjoy strong funding support within their communities.

Before addressing the subject of what measures can colleges take to correct this widening gap, university leaders must first determine if the gender imbalance on their campus matters to them. In our opinion it should matter. Most colleges and universities conduct an ongoing quest for diversity on campus because they recognize the inherent educational value of contact with different kinds of individuals and the importance of this multicultural education to our larger society. This means that IHEs should take into account the presence on campus of the male population of all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. While it is not precisely a trade off between admitting more women because of their higher academic profiles or more males with lesser credentials in order to enhance the institutional image, there may well be a need to focus on factors other than only GPA, class rank, and test scores in recruiting a first year class.

We have a few recommendations to offer:

* Determine as an institution that diversity on all counts is a goal so that the admissions team has the support of all campus offices to develop a strategic plan of action to achieve and maintain a desirable gender balance.

* Encourage more male students to apply to your institution in order to enlarge the pool of candidates from which to screen and admit your entering class by developing an active, targeted marketing program.

* Emphasize in your recruitment literature and communications channels with guidance counselors and prospective families that you are keenly interested in male students who can enhance the campus community in many different ways. It is necessary to get this message out to more than the category of elite male high school athletes.

* In tandem with the academic leaders in your institution, review the popular majors men choose regularly so that you can highlight these in communicating with prospective candidates.

* Articulate clearly the values of a broad-based college education in and of itself. At the same time, provide a variety of examples of how a liberal arts education that combines traditional intellectual skills and knowledge can be combined with career training for future security and success. Encourage the professional departments and schools within your institution to open their courses to undergraduates and possibly to offer the opportunity to create a double concentration or degree program.

* Emphasize the campus resources for counseling on academic studies, majors, combined degree programs, career counseling with an emphasis on the areas of study and career paths that males tend to favor.

* While not playing down the need to take strong academic courses in high school and do well, send a message that you recognize that many young men are just developing serious attitudes towards school work and that they will be evaluated with special attention to their more recent performance.

* Communicate directly with school guidance counselors and teachers regarding your interest in learning of male students who show signs of intellectual promise, have special talents of an academic, technical, or leadership skills and who have the potential to succeed in your institution.

* Communicate again and again that it is possible for students without the means to pay for college on their own to receive financial assistance and you are there to help them understand how to apply for aid.

* Articulate through all appropriate avenues of communication that a college education is a great investment in one's future and is worth the demands and sacrifices involved.

Shifting attitudes

In a recent conversation with a popular professor on a highly selective liberal arts campus, we asked if he sees any marked differences in the student body he teaches and serves as an advisor today. His response was immediate: 20 years ago, and less so 10 years ago, the women on campus would emulate the mores and attitudes of their male peers in order to feel successful and assimilated into the campus community. In recent years he has witnessed a remarkable shift in attitude and behavior whereby the women are far more independent in their thinking, more openly expressive of their opinions and beliefs, and not hesitant to compete in and out of the classroom. It is his view, and ours as well, that this shift has occurred as his and other campuses have become populated by more women than men. We hear similar stories from other colleges and universities. The line in the old folk tune, "Where have all the young men gone," may well be taking on new meaning for higher education and public and private leadership.

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene are independent education consultants, and the authors of the Greene's Guides to Educational Planning. To contact them, visit

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