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students were found to be girls. The same was true in
trigonometry and geometry.
“Contrary to some current views and the patterns of the
mid-1980s, more high school girls took higher-level math and
science than did boys in all of the reporting states,” the report
noted.
And just as the phenomenon begins before college, it
continues after college, where women have grown to near
parity withmen in professional schools. AU.S. Department of
Education survey recently noted that between 1970 and 2001
the percentage of law degrees awarded to women increased
fromfive percent to 47 percent; medical degrees from eight
percent to 43 percent; and dentistry degrees fromone percent
to 39 percent. Each year the percentages for women edge
upward another notch.
“The meaning of these numbers coming out of colleges
and graduate schools is very significant, and I don’t know
that many people have grasped it,” said James Maxey, senior
research scientist for American College Testing (ACT) in Iowa
City. “We are moving towards a female dominated society
in everything regarding the professions. I
mean everything from the law tomedicine to
science, across the board.”
Here in Oskaloosa, the phone calls
from reporters come almost daily now
to
Opportunity’s
office in the basement of
Mortenson’s home. Some come fromCBS
and
Newsweek
, others from small newspapers
where the editor has noticed that all four
high school valedictorians in his hometown
happen to be girls.
Yet Mortenson is hardly satisfied. Getting
the educational establishment to recognize
the male decline took more than five years, he
says, and even now the nation’s educational
systemhas not begun to respond in a way
that might rescue the next generation of boys.
“You look for somebody trying to change the situation and
you find nothing. Zippo,” Mortenson said. “We don’t want to
accept the idea that boys need help. The notion about boys has
always been that they can take care of themselves, even when
the numbers prove otherwise.”
Mortenson often expresses mild amazement that he has
come to be regarded as the champion of boys. As a child of
the ’60s, he grew up in rural Iowa and then spent two years
in South America as a member of the Peace Corps, returning
with a zeal to do good works. He had always excelled at math
and eventually decided to use those skills dissecting the
educational disparities betweenminorities and women on one
side and the reigning class of white males on the other.
Over the years he worked as a policy analyst for the
University of Minnesota, the Illinois Board of Higher
Education and ACT. With his NewDeal political idealism,
Mortenson should have fit snugly into the education hierarchy.
But somehow he didn’t.
Mortenson, it seems, is a born gadfly—an avuncular
gadfly, with his shock of white hair and personal charm, but
a gadfly nonetheless. Once engaged on a subject, he tends to
talk non-stop, and the talk can grow passionate and blunt.
He is also a man who quickly understands the real-world
repercussions of statistics, and is impatient with those who
do not. This approach does not always win favor in education
bureaucracies.
At ACT, for example, he became increasingly discouraged
over the erosion of the value of Pell grants for underprivileged
college students. Concluding that tinkering with the program
wouldn’t work, he pushed the ACT leadership to advocate the
wholesale dismantling of Pell grants and then lobby for a new,
more effective program. Mortenson’s bosses did not agree, and
soon he departed.
The founding of
Opportunity
came, in part at least, as a
result of Mortenson’s understanding that he needed a venue
where his gadfly nature would be an advantage rather than a
disadvantage. “With the newsletter I can lay out the numbers
as I see them,” he said. “I can push the envelope; I canmake
people mad. And no one can bumpme off.”
Then he laughed. “I don’t think they can even findme in
Oskaloosa.”
Actually, Mortenson first noticed the signs of the male
decline while he was at ACT, several years before he founded
Opportunity
. Initially he thought the slippage was a good sign.
It meant that women—minority, white, rich and poor—were
working their way toward parity.
But as he followed the numbers over the next few years,
the slippage began to quicken. He pulled enrollment statistics
from the ’70s and was surprised to discover that the percentage
of males going to college had gone flat during the decade. “I
stared at the numbers and I was startled,” he said. “For boys,
the percentage was about the same in 1990 as in 1970. All the
progress in higher education over those twenty years could be
attributed to girls. The boys had gone flat-line.”
Still, Mortenson wrote nothing about his moment of
epiphany. His franchise was minorities and women, he told
himself, not males. Surely someone else would take up the
cause of boys.
Five years passed and no one did. By this time, in 1995,
Mortenson had started
Opportunity
and had continued to
watch the decline of males. The downward curve, if anything,
In 2002, the
percentage of males
on the nation’s
campuses stood
at 43 percent—the
lowest since the
middle of the 19th
century.
30
40
50
60
70
80
1929 1939 1949 1959 1969 1979 1989 1999 2002
Male Share of Higher Education Enrollments • 1929 to 2002
Male Percent of Total
56.3
59.8
69.7
64.1
59.3
49.1
45.7
43.9 43.1
Source: Postsecondary Education Opportunity