Women Outnumber Men Among College Graduates

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The gender gap in higher education overall is widening in favor of women. Colleges are handing out 200,000 more degrees to women than to men this graduation season — even as the debate over attracting women to the sciences continues.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The firestorm over Lawrence Summers' remarks at Harvard may obscure a broader reality. Whatever their record in the sciences, women are doing quite well in college overall. By some measures, they're doing better than men. At graduation ceremonies across the nation this month, colleges handed out 200,000 more degrees to women. Tom Mortenson of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education says many colleges are asking where all the men went.

Mr. TOM MORTENSON (Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education): We've been awarding more bachelor's degrees to women than men since the early 1980s. In some respects, women caught up to men in high school graduation and college continuation rates in the late '70s and by the early '80s they converted that into a numerical advantage in bachelor's degrees awarded. It's been a long-term record of significant progress, significant gains in educational attainment for women.

INSKEEP: People have been speaking about this as a serious problem that men are not doing as well as women. Is it really a problem?

Mr. MORTENSON: Well, I think it's obviously a problem. Traditional male employment in the economy has been disappearing for many decades. Manufacturing jobs at one point were about a third of the jobs in the economy and it's now down to about 11 percent, and at the current rate of decline in the year 2028 there will be no more manufacturing jobs in the United States. What's really growing are jobs in the private-service sectors of the economy and women have found these jobs to their liking and matching their educational attainment, and the men don't seem to be getting the same message that the world is changing and they need to get more education in order to be productively employed.

INSKEEP: Although, at the same time, it's not like men are underrepresented in business or in industry or in government. The vast majority of CEOs at major companies are men. Men would seem to still be doing quite fine.

Mr. MORTENSON: Well, men sort of have about a three or four million year head start here and we're talking about educational progress of women that's really only become apparent in the last 25 years or so. If we follow these trends out into the future, at some point, of course, virtually all of the college graduates will be women.

INSKEEP: Has any college succeeded in what you might call an affirmative action program for men?

Mr. MORTENSON: I think colleges are justifiably very nervous about this question of affirmative action for males. And in part, it's because the women have worked so hard and accomplished so much in preparation for college that to think we might deny a space in college for a qualified and prepared and motivated young woman just to get another less well-prepared, less motivated, less focused young man in college is rather disturbing to most people.

INSKEEP: Are men really suffering from this as a group?

Mr. MORTENSON: Well, we have the highest incarceration rates in the world. We have declining male labor force participation rates. We've got declining male voting rates in the United States. We have declining male engagement in raising the children that they father. I think the evidence is that adult men are having a great deal of difficulty and I think it probably begins with their labor market problems in fulfilling their other roles, their civic roles and their family roles as well. As I study the numbers, we're doing nothing to turn this situation around and it's going to get worse as long as I'm alive.

INSKEEP: Why is that?

Mr. MORTENSON: We seem to know how to encourage and motivate and prepare young women, but there's really no conversation going on about what we ought to be doing to prepare our boys for the kinds of jobs that are going to be out there when they become adults.

INSKEEP: Tom Mortenson is a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

Thanks very much.

Mr. MORTENSON: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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