The Missing Men

George Wilson knew remote learning was not for him. So when his classes went online because of the coronavirus pandemic, Wilson, a then-45-year-old furnace operator in Ohio, did what thousands of men nationwide did last year — he stopped out.

On campus, “I’m a machine,” said Wilson, who is pursuing an associate degree at Lakeland Community College, in Kirtland, Ohio. “I don’t have that same drive at home.”

Wilson is part of an exodus of men away from college that has been taking place for decades, but that accelerated during the pandemic. And it has enormous implications, for colleges and for society at large.

Last fall, male undergraduate enrollment fell by nearly 7 percent, nearly three times as much as female enrollment, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. The decline was the steepest — and the gender gap the largest — among students of color attending community colleges. Black and Hispanic male enrollment at public two-year colleges plummeted by 19.2 and 16.6 percent, respectively, about 10 percentage points more than the drops in Black and Hispanic female enrollment. Drops in enrollment of Asian men were smaller, but still about eight times as great as declines in Asian women.

Men as a whole aren’t usually the group that comes to mind as needing a leg up. But for colleges, declining male enrollment means less revenue and less viewpoint diversity in the classroom. For the economy, it means fewer workers to fill an increasing number of jobs that require at least some college education, and a future in which the work force is split even more along gender lines.

In the late 1970s, men and women attended college in almost equal numbers. Today, women account for 57 percent of enrollment and an even greater share of degrees, especially at the level of master’s and above. The explanations for this growing gender imbalance vary from the academic to the social to the economic. Girls, on average, do better in primary and secondary school. Boys are less likely to seek help when they struggle. And they face more pressure to join the work force.

In an effort to turn things around, colleges are adding sports teams and majors in fields that tend to attract more men than women, such as criminal justice and information science. They are creating mentoring and advising programs for men, particularly those who are Black and Hispanic. And at least one is hiring a director of Black and males of color‘s success.

But programs and positions catering to men remain relatively rare, said Adrian H. Huerta, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California who studies programs for men of color. Those that do exist tend to be untested and underfunded — “a person who is dedicating 25 percent of their time and asked to produce miracles with no money,” he said.

James Shelley, who founded one of the nation’s first men’s resource centers at Lakeland Community College, in 1996 — “the prehistoric period,” he calls it — said many college leaders still view men as a privileged class.

“One thing I often hear is that men still have most of the power, they still make more on the dollar than women, so why create a special program for them?” he said. “It’s not an easy sell.”

Young women have outpaced young men in college enrollment since the late 1980s but the gap in favor of Black and Hispanic women goes back even further.

In 1972, when white women between the ages of 18 and 24 trailed their male counterparts by 10 percentage points in college enrollment, Black and Hispanic women were only 5 and 3 percentage points behind their male counterparts, respectively.

By 1980, Black and Hispanic women had caught up and surpassed their male peers. White women wouldn’t overtake men for another decade.

Thomas A. DiPrete, a professor of sociology at Columbia University and co-author of The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What It Means for American Schools, attributes this disparity to a history of labor-market discrimination.

Up until the 1960s, many of the jobs that required a college degree were essentially closed to white women and people of color, in general. Women of all races still went to college to become nurses and teachers, but “Black men didn’t have the same incentives to get college degrees that white men had,” DiPrete said.

We are losing a generation of men to Covid. We need to be really creative about how we get them back in the pipeline.

This pattern persisted even as the labor market began to open up more opportunities for women, prompting more women of all races to enroll. In 2018, the female-male gap in enrollment among 18- to 24-year-olds stood at eight percentage points for Black and Hispanic students, andsix percentage points for white students. Over all, nearly three million fewer men than women enrolled in college that year.

Some of this difference may be due to the belief among some young men that college “isn’t worth it” — that they’re better off going into the work force and avoiding the debt.

“In a lot of communities of color, there’s this mind-set that the man should work, the man should provide,” said Michael Rodriguez, director of the Men’s Resource Center at Kingsborough Community College, in Brooklyn, which is part of the City University of New York. “They think, ‘if I sit around and go to school, I may not be looked at as a functioning provider in my home.’”

Though the decision to work after high school may make short-term economic sense, it deprives these men of thousands in lifetime earnings, and deprives colleges of the perspectives they would bring to the classroom — both as students and as future professors, Rodriguez said. “For colleges to really thrive, all voices need to be heard,” he said. “A gender gap creates unhealthy institutions.”

Until relatively recently, men who skipped college could count on a family-sustaining wage in a male-dominated, blue-collar field like manufacturing. But those types of jobs have become scarcer, while the earnings gap between men with high-school diplomas and college degrees has grown wider. Today, men with bachelor’s degrees make roughly $900,000 more in median lifetime earnings than high-school graduates who lack higher degrees, according to the Social Security Administration.

Though well-paying jobs are still available for men without a four-year degree — jobs in the skilled trades, and advanced manufacturing, for example — most require at least a certificate or associate degree.

“I don’t know if there has been a full coming to grips with the way the economy has changed,” said DiPrete. “We’re still close enough to this world that, in some senses, has gone past, a world where a man could support his family without a college degree, working in a factory.”

But labor-market factors alone can’t fully explain the growing gulf in college completion between men and women. Academic preparation and gender norms play a role, too.

The differences between boys and girls emerge as early as elementary school, where boys lag in literacy skills and are overrepresented in special education. Boys are also more likely than girls to be punished for misbehaving — an experience that can sour them on school.

The disparities in discipline are the most pronounced among Black boys, who made up 15 percent of public-school students in the 2015-16 school year, but accounted for 31 percent of law-enforcement referrals and arrests.

Boys are also less likely than girls to seek or accept help for their academic and emotional struggles, having been socialized to be self-reliant. By the time they’re in middle school, some boys have disengaged from school entirely. Even if they manage to graduate from high school, these boys lack the skill — or the will — to succeed in college.

Meanwhile, parents and schools “are pointing fingers at one other,” trying to place the blame for the gender divide, Huerta said.

“Is it the institution’s fault, or the family’s fault?” he asked.

At Lakeland, the decision to create a stand-alone center for men back in the mid-90s stemmed from the success of the college’s women’s resource center, Shelley recalled.

“It was thought that if we have a program that’s such a benefit to women, wouldn’t it make sense to have a similar program for men” who had fallen behind their female peers, he said. The premise was that “men have problems, too.”

But when Shelley began calling around to see what other colleges were doing to support men, he came away empty-handed. “Most of the people I talked to expressed the sentiment that men are the problem,” he said.

Twenty-five years later, Shelley sees this structural “anti-maleness” embedded in school-discipline policies that disproportionately net boys, and in sexual-assault prevention programs that sometimes treat incoming students as threats. “I had one young man tell me ‘I was welcomed to college by being told that I’m a potential rapist,” he said.

Today, the Men’s Resource Center at Lakeland Community College helps men work through a variety of challenges that can derail their college plans — from missing financial-aid paperwork to a broken-down car. If a student clashes with a professor, Shelley and a program coordinator play ombudsman, helping to resolve the conflict. If he’s hungry or homeless, they’ll offer an emergency grant, or connect him to services in the community.

Roughly half the men the center serves are referred by faculty members or by student-services and financial-aid staff. The other half are part of success programs for Black men and men over the age of 25.

For colleges to really thrive, all voices need to be heard. A gender gap creates unhealthy institutions.

There’s no official tally of the number of programs for men on campuses today, but Huerta estimates that there are fewer than 100 programs specifically for men of color. Their most common feature is mentoring, he said.

At Kingsborough Community College, which is part of the CUNY Black Male Initiative, new male students are matched with high-achieving upperclassmen, who are paid for their work.

“It’s an important part of the growth young men need, to be paired with somebody who understands them, who they can relate to,” Rodriguez said.

The MetroWest College Planning Collaborative, a joint college-access project founded by Framingham State University and Massachusetts Bay Community College, matches high-school students with college students who share their language, culture, or background.

“There’s a lot of focus on students having the right information” about college, said Colleen Coffey, the collaborative’s executive director. “Our focus is on having the right connection.”

Another feature of many programs are conversations around gender and identity, often with the goal of challenging conventional ideas about manhood, Huerta said.

Tyler Comrie for The Chronicle

Berea College’s Black Male Leadership Initiative holds bi-weekly meetings in which discussions about “toxic” masculinity and dysfunctional relationships take place alongside debates about policing and politics.

“There’s nothing we don’t talk about,” said Keith Bullock, the program’s coordinator.

In the 100 Males to College program in Springfield, Mass., professional men of color lead workshops on “healthy masculinity,” and mentors model it.

“We’re trying to shatter stereotypes around what a man is and what a man should be,” said Yolanda Johnson, executive officer for student services in the Springfield Public Schools. “Traditional masculinity — commonly viewed as males being tough, not asking for help, and not crying or showing emotions — impacts people of all genders,” she added, in an email.

But Shelley, of Lakeland Community College’s resource center, is generally skeptical of efforts to “reprogram” males, believing it better to “channel” their deeply ingrained identities then to attempt to change them. Asking students to share their deepest feelings might work in a women’s group, “but if I ask men that, no will say anything.”

“But if I ask ‘what are your challenges? What do you need to surmount to become successful?’ then it becomes more about problem-solving,” and less about problem-confessing, he said.

It’s unclear which approach — changing or channeling male mind-sets — works best. Though programs for men of color have multiplied over the past decade, there still isn’t much research comparing different strategies, said Huerta, who recently conducted a literature review of 70 articles on the experiences of men of color in higher ed. The studies that do exist tend to focus on four-year institutions, not community colleges.

Huerta’s own research into programs for men of color — including, most recently, 175 interviews with students, faculty, staff from five campuses of a public state-university system — has led him to conclude that most are “Band-Aids to larger problems.”

“They don’t solve institutional problems,” such as a chilly campus climate for students of color, he said.

If men faced barriers to enrolling and staying in college before Covid-19, the pandemic — and a recent spate of police violence against Black Americans — has only amplified them. Students who were already struggling in high school fell further behind, unwilling or unable to engage in online learning. Boys of color who were already unsure they belonged in higher ed felt their sense of alienation and insecurity deepen.

At the same time, many men felt a heightened pressure to work, after family members lost jobs during the recession.

“It’s almost like barrier overload,” said S. Sean Madison, president of the Trinity River Campus of Tarrant County College, in Texas, which lost a number of men during the pandemic. “They were already trying to meet the needs of their family, and play catch-up, and now the barriers are compounded.”

Luis Ponjuan, an associate professor of higher education at Texas A&M University, said Covid, coupled with a spike in racist attacks, created a “perfect storm” for men of color.

“Not only do I feel like I feel like I don’t belong here, but now I’m dealing with a level of racism where I don’t even feel safe,” he said, imagining how a student might think. “Then throw on top Covid, and I now need to make enough money to support my family.”

Ponjuan said he understands the cost-benefit calculation men are making when they decide that “college is not worth my time.”

A tenured professor who has been invited to the White House and testified before Congress, he used to feel respected and safe in his community. But the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot while jogging in his Georgia hometown in the middle of the day, robbed him of that “false sense of security,” he said, making him nervous to walk or run outside his own neighborhood.

“For the first time in my life, I realized that I am in a community that sees me as a man of color,” he said. “No one is immune” from racialized violence “by status or financial privilege.”

That realization “radically changed my perspective on my research,” said Ponjuan, a Cuban immigrant who describes himself as Afro Latino. “I’m no longer doing research, I’m doing me-search.”

Meanwhile, the decline in male enrollment shows no signs of abating. This spring, 400,000 fewer males enrolled in college than in the spring of 2020, a drop nearly double that for females (203,000), data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show.

Once again, the biggest losses and the widest gender gaps were at public community colleges, where male enrollment fell by 14.4, and female enrollment by 6 percent.

Some of that difference is probably attributable to the fact that hands-on fields favored by men were harder to transition to an online environment, said Douglas Shapiro, vice president for research and executive director of the Clearinghouse research center. During the pandemic, enrollment in male-dominated programs like construction, precision production, and firefighting declined two to three times as much as enrollment in nursing and education — fields dominated by women.

“We are losing a generation of men to Covid,” said Huerta. “We need to be really creative about how we get them back in the pipeline.”

That starts with convincing men that college is, indeed, “worth it,” said Rodriguez, particularly when the payoff isn’t immediately obvious.

“When you break down what they want, they really want a job,” he said. “Colleges have to tell a better story of what you can do with an English degree.”

Shelley would like to see colleges create more short-term programs, too, to get men into the work force more quickly. He said that when he tells prospective students a program will take two years, plus prerequisites, they often tell him “forget it.”

Your budgets are your values. If you want men of color to be successful, you put your money there.

Colleges also need to make it less embarrassing for men to seek help for their academic struggles, said Ponjuan, who suggests embedding tutors in classes, so students don’t have to seek them out.

Money matters, too. Colleges could put a portion of their federal relief funds toward getting male dropouts to re-enroll, through emergency grants or debt relief, Huerta suggested.

At Compton College, in California, federal relief dollars will pay the first two years of salary and benefits for a new director of Black and males of color’s success.

“Your budgets are your values,” said Keith Curry, Compton’s president. “If you want men of color to be successful, you put your money there.”

But it will take more than a one-time infusion of federal funds to close gender and racial gaps in college completion, said Edward C. Bush, president of Cosumnes River College, and vice president of the African American Male Education Network & Development (A²mend), a coalition of California community college faculty and administrators that is seeking to transform its institutions by removing structural barriers to success for men of color.

“The big issue is how our systems are funded,” Bush said. In California and many other states, the regional and community colleges that serve disproportionate numbers of low-income students receive less per-pupil funding than the more selective flagships. If we hope to achieve gender and racial parity in enrollment, “we need to have a redistribution of resources,” he said. “We have a separate and unequal system, and that needs to be corrected.”

Back in Ohio, George Wilson said he plans to return to Lakeland in the fall, when all his classes are back in person. With his younger daughter now off at college, it’s something he finally has time to do.

But Wilson is sticking to a resolution he made when he enrolled in 2018: he won’t let his wife, who has a master’s degree, help him with homework.

“She’s a great teacher, but all this I’m doing, I’m doing myself,” he said.

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