Washington universities are not alone: Fewer young men are going to college.
The trend affects all schools, including public two- and four-year universities and private four-year colleges. Across the U.S. reported an approximately 1.5 million student decrease in all fall semester students enrolled between 2015 to 2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, a research nonprofit. Approximately 72% of that decline is from a decrease in enrolled men.
The trend has resulted in a record-high disparity in the number of male and female college students, according to the Wall Street Journal, with women accounting for 59.5% of enrolled students by the end of the 2020-21 academic year.
At Washington State University, male students account for approximately 46% of WSU’s total student population across all campuses. The 1,774 male freshmen admitted for the fall 2021 semester is nearly equal to last year’s class.
Even so, the 2.52% decline in total enrollment at WSU from fall 2017 to present is attributable to a 6.8% decline in male students over that period, according to WSU data. The number of men attending WSU is down by 998 since 2017; meanwhile, the number of women over that period is up by 227 students, or 1.4%.
Gonzaga University has largely maintained a 52 -55% female majority since 2012, according to university data.
That includes fall 2020 when 53% of Gonzaga’s 4,852 undergraduate students identified as female, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Approximately 55% of all fall 2020 applications to Gonzaga were from women; the undergraduate admittance rate was 74% for men versus 72% for women.
Erin Hays, Gonzaga’s director of undergraduate admission, said the university has remained “consistent” in the past decade with the number of male enrollees. She attributed the relatively even split partly to the university’s mix in educational opportunities.
“Overall, we offer an outstanding holistic education that prepares students well for the future, and that appeals to all students,” she said via email.
“Furthermore, some of our academic offerings are in fields traditionally male-dominated (e.g., engineering) and some are traditionally female-dominated (e.g., nursing). Although we seek gender balance in all majors, including engineering and nursing, the presence of such programs can attract all students.”
At Whitworth University, 43.4% of the school’s fall 2021 freshman class identified as male, up from 38.4% last year and 41.1% in 2019, said Whitworth spokesperson Trisha Coder.
More in line with national trends, just over 41% of students attending Eastern Washington University were men in fall 2020, according to the latest available data.
This is amid an approximately 8% decline in EWU’s population of male students in the past five years, down from 5,523 in fall 2016 to 5,075 in fall 2020, according to the university’s Office of Institutional Research data.
College versus career
Jens Larson, EWU’s associate vice president for enrollment management, said the trend of more women going to college than men has existed in most wealthy nations for at least a few decades.
Research suggests fewer men apply when jobs in traditionally male-oriented fields – such as trucking, construction, manufacturing and natural resource extraction – are in demand, especially when the salaries are relatively high and the jobs are easier to get.
“This is based on past data, I’m not trying to stereotype here, but traditionally, women are more likely to go into nursing, education, counseling, social work,” Larson said.
“Those professions, even though the demand is still high, you still have to have a four-year degree for those professions whereas construction, you don’t need a four-year degree. Sometimes you don’t even need a two-year degree or a certificate. You just need experience.”
Playing off that, Larson said young boys and men are more often “steered away from college” than women, perhaps because of inequality in terms of “economic mobility” between men and women, Larson said. This steering can take the form of the suggestion to students that men can make a great salary after high school without a degree – which is “often true,” Larson acknowledges.
“A place like Spokane, which tends to have more of those professions as a percentage of the regional economy, tends to be really impacted by that,” he said. “We’ve seen that pretty much since the last Great Recession. There’s been an acceleration of this trend.”
The number of new male “first time in college” students at EWU somewhat bucked the trend from 2016 to 2019, peaking at 720 male students in 2019. Then the COVID-19 pandemic started, and EWU saw only 581 students from that category in fall 2020.
“The decline during the COVID period is probably a combination of all those additional variables coupled with the economic factors of COVID,” he said. “There are career paths that didn’t require college degrees during COVID, and those are some of the most in-demand careers right now. It makes it relatively straightforward not to go to college.”
‘College should be an opportunity for everyone’
Another factor in the trend pertains to a student’s primary school career, as Larson said research shows boys more often perform worse on K-12 education benchmarks, particularly at the elementary levels.
As students struggle with those benchmarks, they might be told they are not good students or they are not going to be successful in school, he said. Students then start to internalize those notions.
“Then they get tracked into noncollege paths based on these early experiences,” Larson said. “Sometimes there’s the sense that young men will come back to the system when they enter into their career and realize that they do need a college degree for advancement, and a lot of the data shows that just doesn’t happen. Once students start this path and don’t pursue college, it’s really hard to get back into the system. Really hard, because life happens.”
A gender disparity was apparent at Spokane Public Schools last spring with the following categories, according to data provided by the district:
• Graduation rates: 91.7% of girls graduated compared to 87.1% of boys.
• Dropouts: About 1 in 13 boys dropped out last spring compared to about 1 in 22 girls.
• Dual-credit programs: 56% of girls completed at least one dual-credit class, which earns credit for high school and college, versus 50% of boys.
• Pass rates: 78% of freshmen girls passed all of their classes compared to 70% of boys.
That gap persisted beyond graduation, even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a downturn in overall college enrollment.
In 2018, the district saw 33% of graduating females and 28% of males go on to college. Those numbers dropped to 30.7% and 24.5%, respectively, the following year.
“I was looking at our last three graduating classes, and we matched the national trend,” said Scott Kerwien, the district’s executive director of student success.
By the time a student is a junior or a senior in high school, a higher education institution’s ability to change that student’s “college-going behavior” is diminished, Larson said.
For Hays, her evaluation of the trend is that young men “are not finding value in higher education.”
“We work to communicate to all prospective students that there are long-term benefits of a college degree, that it is worth the investment,” she said. “When giving presentations on Gonzaga, I emphasize that we seek preparation for college academics in our applicants, not perfection. My hope is that students feeling discouraged by not having a 4.0 are reminded that college is accessible.”
Moving forward, higher education institutions can evaluate the programs in place at the K-12 level and through community-based organizations that work with younger students to develop this college-going behavior, Larson said.
For EWU’s part, nevertheless, the university recognizes that college isn’t for everyone, he noted.
“College should be an opportunity for everyone. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to have a college degree,” he said. “If one part of the population is being told that college isn’t for them, that feels wrong. If, however, everyone is being told that college is an opportunity you should consider and pursue as part of your career path, that feels right.”
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