It’s not exactly “Surf City” at colleges and universities in the Inland Northwest.
But enrollments at many schools recall that old rock ‘n’ roll song in at least one respect – they’re nearing two girls for every boy.
Women make up roughly 60 percent of the student body at Eastern Washington University and Whitworth College. That proportion is higher at Washington State University-Spokane and North Idaho College – though at WSU’s Pullman campus the split is about 50-50, and men make up the majority at the University of Idaho.
It’s not a new situation, though new enrollment figures at regional schools show it is persistent. The last time male and female enrollment rates were equal in America was 1978 – since then, women have overtaken men in just about every measure of higher education. The Department of Education projects that the gap will keep widening through 2014.
“You see a lot of statistics out there,” said Michelle Whittingham, associate vice president of enrollment services at EWU. “But I’ve yet to see the ‘why’ answered.”
Women make up 58 percent of Eastern’s student body. But when Whittingham looked at the figures for this year’s freshman class, she saw that 62 percent were women.
“That really jumped off the spreadsheet at me,” she said. “Truly, where did the boys go?”
The trend has drawn increasing attention in recent years – some arguing that it’s evidence of a growing antipathy toward the education of boys and that it threatens to damage family incomes, work force productivity and civic engagement.
Women’s rights advocates caution that improving the lot of men shouldn’t come at the expense of gains made by women. They note that men still dominate political and economic arenas worldwide.
But whatever the response, no one disputes that the change has been widespread.
“In every major age and race-ethnic group, women across the nation now enroll in college, persist in college and graduate from college at considerably higher rates than men,” according to a 2003 report prepared by Northeastern University.
A widening gap
At NIC, the number of women enrolled has been gradually rising – to 63 percent this year.
Bruce Gifford, vice president for student services at the school, jokes that if the trend continues, “we’ll have to change the name of North Idaho College to North Idaho Women’s College.”
It’s not hard to understand the explosion in achievement by women, he said. Opportunities for women expanded greatly in the last 30 years, and society also changed in many ways.
“But where I’m really at a loss is on the men’s side – why that number keeps going down,” he said. “That’s bothersome.”
According to the Northeastern University report, in 1970 there were 68 women enrolled in college for every 100 men. That reached parity in 1978.
By 2000, there were 129 women enrolled for every 100 men, and 134 women earning degrees of all kinds for every 100 men.
Gary Livingston, chancellor of the Community Colleges of Spokane, said many factors could be involved, ranging from social efforts to encourage girls to attend college to economic factors that might draw boys into the work force earlier.
“I think there’s just a whole bunch of stuff happening in society,” he said. “I think we’ve challenged girls to do more and think at loftier levels, … and more young ladies are thinking about going on and becoming doctors and lawyers and MBAs than in past decades.”
Whether the reasons are inherent in gender – the idea that rambunctious boys are less suited for classroom performance – or problems in the system, girls outperform boys on most academic measures, Whittingham said.
An article in Crosstalk, a publication of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said, “For boys, the downward spiral actually begins in middle 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.”
There seems to be little research about the causes of the slackening of male participation in higher ed.
Several writers have argued that boys are being shortchanged in schools and society – the result in part of the concerted effort to improve the lot of girls – and that no one is working to redress the imbalance. In 2000, author Christina Hoff Sommers argued in her book “The War Against Boys” that feminism had transformed the classroom into a place that didn’t help boys.
Others say that women are still paid less than men, and are less represented in the boardrooms and corridors of power. It’s too soon, they say, to be adopting affirmative action programs for college-age boys.
“We still have a gender gap in salaries,” said Carol Vines, manager of the Women’s Studies Center at EWU. “So if women are going to get even with men, they almost have to get a college degree.”
Whittingham, the mother of “two very spirited boys,” said that society should be paying attention to the disparity in enrollments, and looking at ways to ensure that the whole system – kindergarten through college – works for all students.
Two schools in the region buck the trend.
WSU’s enrollment is almost exactly split – with six more women registered than men on the Pullman campus of 18,690 students.
Across the border in Moscow, Idaho, the UI actually has more men enrolled than women – about 54 percent of students there are male. Efforts to reach officials at UI to discuss the issue were unsuccessful this week.
Al Jamison, WSU’s vice president for student affairs, was surprised to learn that the university’s male-female ratio was so different from other regional schools.
“We don’t recruit with gender in mind,” he said. “So I would expect us to reflect what’s going on in the region.”
In some areas that have been traditionally dominated by men – such as science and engineering – WSU still shows a preponderance of male students. In the College of Engineering and Architecture, for example, just 15 percent of students are women. That’s not much different than the figure in 1991.
However, in other disciplines, the enrollment of women has risen. In WSU’s College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, women now make up three-quarters of undergrads – up from 59 percent in 1991.
Gifford, the student affairs vice president at NIC, said the disparity between genders in enrollment has been a longtime fact of life on campuses around the country.
“But I’ve never seen anybody really put their finger on what’s going on,” he said. “We’ve got to get together and say, ‘What’s going on here?’ “