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115
By Robert A. Jones
Oskaloosa, Iowa
W
e are bouncing down a county highway, deep in
corn country. On the right side, a Cargill plant looms
out of the farmland, converting corn into corn syrup for
the nation’s soda pop. Otherwise the fields are fallow and all is
mid-winter quiet, just the way TomMortenson likes it.
Mortenson is the editor and publisher of
Postsecondary
Education Opportunity
, a monthly newsletter, and this day he’s
headed for Iowa City where he will drop off the latest edition at
the printer. In the field of higher education, he may be the only
publisher in the land to operate out of a farm town, and the
location has its drawbacks. Today’s trip to the printer, all told,
will take more than three hours.
“This is crazy,” saidMortenson. “If I lived in a city I could
do this job in tenminutes.” But he is smiling in a way to suggest
it is unlikely he would ever abandon southern Iowa.
Opportunity
has grown in influence over the last decade
as it has promoted greater access to higher education for
minorities and lower-income groups. Each year it grades
colleges and universities on their enrollment efforts and has
not flinched from assigning lowmarks to some of the country’s
more notable institutions. On several occasions the newsletter
has bestowed Harvard with an F.
But much of Mortenson’s reputation, and perhaps
notoriety, stems fromhis pioneer work on an issue he never
planned to undertake: the downward spiral of academic
achievement among young males, the very group that so long
dominated college campuses. Beginning in 1995, Mortenson
more or less announced the phenomenon to the academic
world in his newsletter, and he has continued to pound away at
the issue ever since.
The 1995
Opportunity
article was titled, “What’sWrong
with the Guys?”The question startledmany of his readers in
the education world—as it didMortenson himself—because
it was assumed that males would permanently dominate the
academic world and occupy the majority position. In fact,
Mortenson pointed out, men had slipped into a minority.
In the article, Mortenson argued that male dominance on
campuses had been crumbling for more than a decade. His
graphs, ranging fromhigh school dropout rates to the gender
ratios of college graduates, starkly defined the issue: Males were
walking away fromhigher education in alarming numbers
while females were charging ahead. Virtually every measure
showed a downward curve for men that continued into the
foreseeable future. There was no evidence of a turnaround.
Mortenson concluded by predicting that the abandonment
of higher education by increasing numbers of males would
have a profound effect on the future of the nation. “The
failure of men to rise to the challenge to increase greatly their
educational attainment,” he wrote, “will continue to alter
Spring 2005
Where the Boys Aren’t
For young males, the drift away from academic achievement is a trend
nearly every aspect of our
economic, social, political
and family lives.”
Today, the erosion
of male presence on
campuses is widely
acknowledged by the
education establishment
and has been the subject
of extensive media
attention. Indeed,
the evidence of the
decline continues to be
compelling and, in fact,
has grown worse since
Mortenson’s original
article.
In 2002, the most
recent year for which
figures are available,
the percentage of male
undergraduates on the
nation’s campuses stood
at 43 percent versus 57
percent female. That
figure constitutes the lowest percentage for males since the
middle of the 19th century. In that same year, the number of
bachelor’s degrees awarded to women exceeded those tomen
by 192,000. Between 1990 and 2002, female degrees exceeded
males’ by 726,000.
Though differences exist among races and ethnicities, the
trend spans all groups. The sharpest drops
in the share of bachelor’s degrees have
occurred among Hispanic males, followed
by whites and African Americans. Asian
Americanmen have also lost share,
though their percentages are the highest
among the racial groups.
For boys, the downward spiral actually
begins inmiddle and high school. Recent
surveys have shown that boys study less
than girls, make lower grades, participate
in fewer extracurricular activities and take
fewer college-prep courses. By the time
senior year arrives, a large percentage of
boys have already abandoned the college track.
In a 2003 report by the Council of Chief State School
Officers, high school girls were found to be dominant even
in subjects that were traditionally regarded as the preserve
of boys, such as advancedmath and science. In states from
California toMississippi, the majority of high school chemistry
For the last decade, Tom Mortenson has been sounding
the alarm about the declining number of males on
American campuses.
Recently there has
been a downward
spiral in college
enrollment among
young males, the very
group that so long
dominated campuses.
Greg Brown, Black Star, for CrossTalk