Throughout the 1970's, 80's, and 90's, much attention was paid to improving educational opportunities for women. Advocacy groups worked hard to recruit more women into college, and strongly pushed for programs and curriculum specially tailored to women's needs. Statistics now show that all that attention has paid off. Women are achieving post-secondary degrees in record numbers. But if equity is the goal, some researchers say current trends do not bode well, and it's men who stand to lose. In the first of a two-part series, 90.3 WCPN's Bill Rice reports.
Bill Rice: It's the last class of the semester for Nancy McMahon's freshman English class at Cleveland State University. One last presentation, and its off to summer vacations, summer jobs - perhaps both. As this group of students wrap up their coursework for the year, they don't give much thought to what many older adults might consider peculiar about this class - its small number of men. Only five, compared with twelve women.
But this class is not so unusual, say some researchers; women have been increasingly outpacing men in the higher education arena since the 1980s, they say, and the trend shows no sign of abating. Men comprise about 43% of those attending college nationwide; women, 57% - that's according to the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington D.C.
Tom Mortensen: We ought to get beyond this idea that women are at a disadvantage.
BR: That's Tom Mortensen, Senior Scholar at the Institute.
TM: If you look at the increase in the proportion of bachelors degrees awarded between men and women between 1990 and 2000, men earned about 7% of the increase, women earned about 93% of the increase. Almost all the progress in bachelor's degree attainment has going to women over the last 30 years.
BR: A recent report by the Center for Labor Studies at Northeastern University gives further evidence that men, as a gender, are floundering educationally. It found that for every 100 men completing bachelor's degrees in 2000, 133 women did likewise. That number was higher for master's degrees, and higher still for associate's - 151 women for every 100 men. Mortensen says those numbers back up his own past findings. But, he says, as with his own, very few are paying attention to them.
TM: I don't think we're at the point where society believes this is a problem yet. Many people aren't aware of it, and we really haven't wrestled thoughtfully with what this means.
BR: The phenomenon concerns Sunil Chand, vice president for Academic and Student Affairs at Cuyahoga Community College, where women outnumber men 65-35.
Sunil Chand: There are larger percentages of males between the ages of 22 and 35 who don't have a higher education of any kind, or have a few courses and drop out and go back to work. Now on the positive side what they have is the work experience. On the negative side what they don't have is the higher education training that'll get them going many years to come in the changing economy.
BR: Economics Professor Andrew Sum, who conducted the Northeastern Study, is alarmed by the trend. He agrees with Chand that, with rare exceptions, higher education is essential for economic success. In the last ten years, he says, families headed by individuals without some kind of post-secondary schooling have basically made no economic progress.
Andrew Sum: So we have a rising number of families in trouble, and those in trouble have helped generate a rising degree of income inequality across families that has resulted from this.
BR: Sum also foresees a bleak outlook for the family lives of undereducated men. He says research has firmly shown that men without the means to prosper economically are far less likely to take care of their children. And, he says, it also creates problems for the record number of women who are going to college.
AS: With the tendency for men and women to marry within the same socio-economic class, the shortfall in the number of well-educated men has been creating a marriage squeeze at the top of the educational distribution. So there are a larger number of women with degrees who find there aren't men out there to marry.
BR: As to the question of why men aren't achieving, Sum say it's helpful to look at why women are. Chalk it up to advocacy, he says; in the 1970s, the women's movement began pushing hard for equal opportunity for women, and its paid off in spades.
AS: There are (84) professional groups in this country who have lobbied very effectively on behalf of improved educational outcomes for women, both in our Jr High schools, high schools and colleges. Basically there is no effective lobbying group for men to promote their educational outcomes.
BR: Sum says such advocacy is a good thing. But he's one of a growing contingent who believe the tireless promotion of women's opportunities since the 70's has left men's interests largely forgotten. The Pell Institute's Tom Mortensen agrees.
TM: It's been almost politically incorrect to think of men as being disadvantaged in any way. The women's agenda has so dominated things politically that it's been difficult to raise men's issues.
BR: Indeed, some women's groups do seem indifferent to the notion that men's educational prospects are wanting. Martha Burke is chair of the National Council of Women's organizations, doesn't buy the Northeastern study.
Martha Burke: I've not seen those numbers, and I'd be astounded if they were true. But I don't see what his point is, regardless.
BR: Burke says the better question is what happens to women after they leave college and get into the workforce compared to men. In Cleveland, Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN News.