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had grown steeper. Something big was happening. Mortenson
began writing about it, and he hasn’t stopped.
These days he travels often, addressing education
conferences on the subject, and usually begins with slides
showing boys’ greater dropout rates, lower grades in high
school, and general drift away from academic achievement.
Then he puts up what he calls the “show stopper.”
It’s a slide of suicide rates among boys between the ages 15
and 24. The graph shows a horrific rise beginning in the 1960s
and peaking in the 1990s, when the ratio of male to female
suicides exceeded six to one. The rates are the highest ever
recorded for that age group.
“You can sober up any audience when you lay out the
suicide data,” he said. “The room tends to go quiet. The
audience is staring at figures showing young males giving up
on life at the very beginning of life, and they understand that
something dangerous is happening in our culture.”
In recent years several studies by the U.S. Department of
Education, the American Council on Education, and others
have confirmedMortenson’s findings. But some question
whether the situation amounts to a cultural apocalypse.
Michael McPherson, former president of Macalester
College and now head of the Spencer Foundation, recalls that
during his undergraduate days at the University of Chicago
A Growing Gender Gap
May 2008
he downward spiral of academic achievement among
young males was already a clear trend in 2005, when
published an article about this growing gender gap in
higher education. At the time, TomMortenson, editor and publisher
of the newsletter
Postsecondary Education Opportunity
, sounded a
decidedly pessimistic note, and suggested that matters were likely to
The issue has continued to receive scant media attention, at best, and
Mortenson has seen nothing to signal an improvement in the numbers.
In fact, the trend might even have accelerated. “The girls keep pulling
away from the boys,” Mortenson said. “We were looking at our data,
state by state, and the share of bachelor’s degrees going to men is the
smallest it’s ever been—much less than for women.”
Mortenson is a fount of information about this issue, and can
provide a ready stream of data. “What seems to have happened is that,
over many decades, there is a constant share of males that earn bachelor’s
degrees, so all the educational progress has gone to women,” he said.
“They started way behind men, but today there are 2.7 million more
women than men in higher education.”
Across the board, male participation and degree completion hovers
at around 40 percent. Men hold the lead only in doctoral degrees, of
which they earn slightly
more than half.
Mortenson’s newsletter
has increased its presence
on the Internet substantially
in recent years, and can be
found at
However, interest does not
seem to be building. “We
have been slowly losing
subscribers since about
2003,” Mortenson said.
“Last year we had to redesign our website to limit access to those who
support our activities—paid subscribers. But we still let media people
in all the time.” In part, this is the result of Mortenson’s decision to forgo
advertising to subsidize the website. “I was contacted early on by one of
the big student loan businesses,” he said. “But I decided to do it without
Gender disparities in higher education are an issue outside the U.S.
as well, andMortenson recently attended a conference in Toronto
on the subject, sponsored by the Canada Millennium Scholarship
foundation and the European Access Network. “So much is
happening in Europe,” he said. “They are experiencing the same
thing. Frankly, in a majority of countries in the world, there are more
women than men in higher education. The Scandinavians have the
worst gender imbalance.” And
while the notion persists that
women are disadvantaged
in education, Mortenson
said, “it’s males who are
performing poorly.”
“The Europeans are not
really paying attention to this
either,” Mortenson added.
“The problem of gender
politics we have in this
country, as far as I can tell,
exists everywhere else as well.
But the data are clear—the
women keep pulling farther
and farther away.”
What’s to be done? In
Mortenson’s view, women
have been more successful than men in adapting to an expanding
service-based economy, dominated by jobs in healthcare, business
and professional services. “We are preparing our girls far better for
the jobs that are out there than we are our boys,” Mortenson said.
“By and large, the jobs men have done continue to disappear, but the
men don’t seem to understand that agriculture and manufacturing
are not coming back. Things can always be produced at a lower cost
elsewhere in the world. There is nothing to suggest that men are
going to be able to make it unless they get their act together and stay
in school.”
Any meaningful remedies will have to involve the K–12 system.
“It’s too late to practice affirmative action for boys who are already at
the college level,” Mortenson said. “You have to start asking why the
colleges can’t prepare teachers for the classroomwho can engage the
boys. I think it’s fair to hold the colleges accountable for that.”
While Mortenson’s experience has made him a believer that
change is possible, he has no illusions, and he remains dubious.
When asked if he holds out hope for the future, his response was
quick and terse. “Nope.”
—Todd Sallo
“They started way
behind men, but today
there are 2.7 million
more women than men
in higher education.”
—Tom Mortenson
Male participation
and degree
completion hovers at
around 40 percent.
Men hold the lead
only in doctoral
degrees, of which
they earn slightly
more than half.