The pandemic is taking a toll on yet another aspect of life in the United States, dealing a blow to college enrollment and further widening the gender gap in higher education.
College enrollment has dropped precipitously in the pandemic. Among the high school class of 2020 graduates, the rate of immediate enrollment in college dropped in some areas by as much as 10 percentage points to an unprecedented low, based on National Student Clearinghouse data. Longitudinal data suggest that these students have for the most part not taken a gap year and then enrolled in college, as the percentage of high school graduates taking a gap year before college also declined in this time period (from 2.6 percent in 2018 to 2.0 percent in 2020), and no evidence suggests post-gap-year college enrollment has caught up.
The pattern of the enrollment decline is remarkable—driven almost exclusively by men. Today only 41 percent of students enrolled in college are men, and the gender gap, according to the Brookings Institution, has widened substantially during the pandemic. The phenomenon is particularly startling when examined in the arc of the last fifty years. In 1972, at the birth of Title IX and the national movement for women’s equality, men far outnumbered women in college, in fact by 12 percentage points. Today, it is the opposite, with women outnumbering men in college by 14 percentage points, even before the pandemic.
What is going on, and what should be done about it? Many hypotheses have been advanced. Some have suggested that in the crisis, families asked men to stay home and help with the family. This makes some sense, but isn’t it usually women who are asked to help with the family, at least as much? Others have surmised that with emerging roles in business and technology that may not require a college degree, coupled with the high burdens of attending college during a pandemic, young men—often attracted to those fields—have felt less need for college. And as the price of college tuition continues to climb and completion rates decline, high school graduates with what they perceive as gainful employment opportunities may opt to work instead.
Another hypothesis is that the gender gap in college merely reflects the gender gap in high school completion, which was significant according to the latest data in 2017-2018, and likely was also exacerbated by the pandemic. Last, crises (like a pandemic) often engender short-term thinking and intensive focus on survival rather than long-term planning and investment in the future. Thus, even with the extensive data on the financial return and social return on investment in college, pandemic thinking may result in foregoing future gain to protect current needs.
MORE FOR YOU
What should be done? We could just wait and assume that the gender gap in college enrollment will close after the pandemic—as this has been a trend fifty years in the making. Several incremental strategies exist. High schools could develop and enroll boys into college preparatory programming focused on supporting boys, which has been shown to have some positive effects. Another approach is for institutions of higher education to interrogate what may be discouraging to men in college and how the curriculum and pedagogy can be shaped to better attract and retain men—both to complete high school and enroll in post-secondary education. Additionally, colleges could develop alternative paths to re-entry so that applicants with work experience could accelerate and not have to repeat a full year lost in high school or a first year of college spent working instead.
But a more holistic and effective approach would be to treat the pandemic as the disruption it truly has been, like a war. After World War II, the U.S. created the GI Bill that both supported and facilitated young adults who had served in the war to access college education. Imagine if we collectively invested in the COVID-19 Bill for Higher Education and invested state and federal dollars into the land-grant institutions, public entities meant to serve the population by educating the future workforce and citizenry of each state. President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation includes a fund to increase college retention and completion but it is insufficiently modest in size.
Public institutions of higher education have been ravaged over the last 30 years with reduced funding and increased regulation. Out of necessity, many have sought to attract high-paying students from out of state while being poorly supported to serve in-state residents. This change, tacitly supported by voters, has consequences—resulting in fewer college graduates, particularly among men. A COVID-19 Bill for Higher Education could address the high school classes hardest hit, boys and girls who happened to be 16-18 years old during the pandemic, and at the same time use this opportunity to reverse a dangerous decades-old trend of men’s declining educational engagement. Such a bill would address a critical but crumbling part of our intellectual infrastructure that has historically made the U.S. one of the most advanced, open, and innovative countries in the globe. It is time to re-invest for long-term educational equity and reverse these troubling trends.