Women Outnumber Men In College Because of Sexism
No, not sexism against men. The usual kind of sexism.
Today, more women than men attend and graduate from college. The media, and especially the right has framed this as a problem of male abandonment and ennui. “A Generation of American Men Give Up On College,” the Wall Street Journal wailed. “Inequalities of this magnitude are a cause for concern, regardless of their direction,” the Brookings institute furrowed. Some colleges have lowered standards for men in order to achieve gender parity in the classroom.
The assumption driving this little moral panic is that (untrustworthy, feminist, leftist) educators, and the culture at large, are discriminating against or discouraging men from entering college. The truth, though, is that women are pushed to college because of ongoing discrimination against women. The worry that men are falling behind is not really about defending men. It’s a backlash to the way that education and schooling are in fact redressing historical inequities.
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Women want education because they’re discriminated against
The prevalence of women on college campuses is a major historical shift. For decades, college education was considered the prerogative of men and women were actively discouraged from pursuing post-secondary degrees. In the early years of the 20th century, women rarely got four-year degrees at elite universities, or indeed, at any universities. As late as 1970, only 8% of women 25 and over had a college degree compared to 14% of men.
Women fell even further behind in the 80s. But then they started to make up ground. By 2010, the genders were about even, with 30% of each having college degrees. In 2021, women had surpassed men, with 39.1% of those over 25 holding a college degree compared to only 36.6% of men.
So, what happened? Did the evil feminists seize all of our institutions and inject them with eau de castrating misandry? Did the liberals destroy manly upward mobility with a curriculum of gender studies and affirmative action?
No and ffs no. What happened is just that colleges moved somewhat towards egalitarianism, and as a result women began to see them as a desperately needed tool to balance out the rest of society’s sexism.
Women are still largely excluded—often by on-the-job harassment and employer discrimination— from the careers that provide a middle-class income without a college degree. Women are 4% of firefighters, only 13% of police officers, 14% of construction workers. They are only 1.4% of plumbers and 2.3% of electricians. Women inherit only 31% of family businesses—which indicates that even women’s parents discriminate against them when it comes to employment.
There are a couple of exceptions here; flight attendants don’t necessarily require a college degree, and they are about 75% women. Women without degrees have also traditionally dominated the secretarial field—but that’s been changing. In 1990 only 9% of secretaries had college degrees; now it’s 33%.
College is a gender equalizer
Despite these excpetion, it’s overwhelmingly men who can afford to skip college—and that’s reflected in attitudes and earnings. Men are more likely than women to say they didn’t attend college because they didn’t want to (34% to 25%). They are also, significantly, more likely to say they didn’t attend college because they didn’t need it for their career (26% to 20%.)
Men’s sense that they need college less is born out in earnings. Researchers Oksana Leukhina and Amy Smaldone ran the numbers and found that men without a college degree earn about $12/hour in 2015 dollars, while women make 25% less, or $9/hour. Men with an associate degree earn 22% more, but women with the same degree earn 27% more. Men with a bachelor’s earn 62% more than those without any degree; women earn a 67% increase.
Without a college degree, women make less money than their male counterparts. More education boosts both male and female earnings—but it boosts women’s earnings more, so women with degrees are closer in earnings to their male counterparts. Leukhina and Smaldone conclude:
What these numbers reveal is that, indeed, getting more education is an important way to close the gender pay gap. College entry—whether it is to get an AS or a BS—helps women gain access to careers where they have a comparative advantage (e.g., office work). Men on the other hand have better access to lucrative careers that don’t require a college degree (e.g., construction work). This appears to be the most reasonable explanation for why women outnumber men in college.
The researchers add, “there is no reason to expect a perfect gender balance in college. Women and men face different incentives and should be expected to make different choices.” The argument there is meant to refute the moral panic about not enough men in college.
But in doing so, it normalizes and whitewashes sexism against women. Women need college because they face systematic discrimination across a range of careers. Women firefighters report that sexist and racist harassment is endemic in the industry. Female police officers report the same. So do construction workers. So do women in manufacturing.
Women do not freely choose to avoid these careers. They are actively prevented from entering them by sexist hiring practices and the reality of vicious harassment on the job. The “different incentives” women face are misogyny and sexism. There are more women in college not because of discrimination against men, but because of discrimination against women.
The GOP hates college because it helps women
College helps women overcome—or at least it helps them occasionally avoid the worst of—sexism. The current GOP assault on education should be understood in that context.
When the right works to defund public education, or denigrates four-year schools in favor of vocational education, or attacks DEI programs—they aren’t doing those things because education is failing. They do those things because education is succeeding in providing some limited upward mobility for people at the bottom of the hierarchy. Black people (of every gender) with college degrees get an important earnings boost. And women (of every race) close the gender-pay gap when they earn associate or bachelor degrees.
The current right wing war on higher education is of a piece with the current right wing hand-wringing about college failing men. Conservatives want to preserve and expand (white, heteronormative) patriarchy. Colleges challenge that hierarchy—not because colleges are dens of leftist critical race theory feminist indoctrination, but because colleges give women (and other marginalized people too) a chance to gain credentials that give them options in a system rigged against them.
Higher education is not discriminating against men. It’s simply offering women, in at least a limited way, the ability to fight discrimination.. Making college affordable and accessible, and canceling student debt, makes the United States more equal by helping less affluent people, and especially by helping less affluent women. That’s why conservatives oppose those policies. And it’s why progressives are, and should be, committed to supporting them.