Why don’t men return to college?



You know how the hook of a song can get stuck in your head, or how you sorta, kinda recognize an actor in something and you can’t stop trying to remember where you’ve seen him before? (Actual conversation at home: “Hey, it’s that guy from…uh…” “Oh, yeah! That one with the girl from the show?” “Yeah, that’s it…”)

Some questions have that same effect on me. Once I’ve either heard or asked them, I can’t let them go. This is one of those. Why don’t men return to college?

It’s a national phenomenon. It’s hardly news that community college student enrollments skew female; we already know that. But if you disaggregate by age, you quickly find that the gender split among traditional-aged students is pretty close to even. As age increases, though, the group becomes decidedly more female. Among students over about age 25, ratios of 3 to 1 are hardly unusual.

Which raises an obvious question. Where are the guys over 25?

I’ve been bouncing this idea around Twitter for the past few days, and I even had a brief discussion with someone from the CCRC at the conference. I’ve heard a few working ideas, but nothing that feels like it fully answers the question. So this post is my attempt to think out loud and possibly crowdsource an answer. If someone out there is aware of some research that I’ve missed, I’d love to hear about it.

One possible factor is incarceration rates. Men are incarcerated at higher rates than women. Outside of a few programs, most inmates don’t attend college while they’re inmates. (Whether that’s good or bad is another question; I’m just looking for explanations.) This strikes me as part of the picture, but I don’t think the effect is enough to explain everything.

The second easy guess is opportunity cost. If men without degrees tend, on average, to make more money than women without degrees, then the cost to a family of sending Mom back to school is less than the cost of sending Dad back to school. The male wage premium becomes a male opportunity cost penalty.

This strikes me as plausible, though probably less than it would have twenty years ago. The old unionized jobs are mostly either gone or grandfathered — and therefore held mostly by the 50+ crowd — and the construction industry still isn’t close to recovered from 2008.

On Twitter, one reader from Utah suggested that in some areas, early childbirth is still a cultural norm. That explains not attending college at 18, but it doesn’t explain why women return and men don’t. And the cultural norms of Utah don’t explain, say, New England.

It’s true that much of the job growth, and the retraining for the job growth, has been in health care fields, which have historically been identified with women. But given the powerful economic incentives, I would have expected more men to move into that field by now. Apparently not.

I’ve seen research on gender in higher ed, but most of it falls along one of two lines: either how to bring more women into STEM fields, or how to improve the success rates of young men of color. Both are valid lines of inquiry, but neither really sheds light on this question. (There’s also a distasteful, essentialist “school is feminine” line that seems to suggest that manly man are too busy doing manly male man things to bother with books and other sissified pursuits. I have a hard time with that one, since men dominated higher education into the 1990’s. And the ages at which guys are the most knuckleheaded — the late teens — are the ages at which we still get them. So that just doesn’t hold water.)

The question about bringing more adult men back to college isn’t just based on curiosity. We’re looking at declining numbers of high school grads for the next several years, which means that if we’re going to maintain or grow our enrollments, we’ll have to reach the adult market. We do pretty well at reaching adult women, but adult men remain a challenge. And the first step to attracting them is figuring out what’s keeping them away.

So, wise and worldly readers, I’m looking for help in figuring this one out. Why don’t adult men return to college anywhere near as often as adult women do?