Colleges face a challenge to masculinity that bulging muscles, rumbling voices, and jacked-up pickup trucks won't remedy.
Despite the fact that men and women get equal salary bumps for earning a bachelor's degree, far more women than men are getting the message. As a result, nearly 58 percent of bachelor's degrees and 62 percent of associate degrees are granted to women.
It's not that colleges aren't searching for men. Some start football programs or rugby leagues to attract guys. Others revise their campus brochures to portray men playing various sports. (Next up: A more realistic brochure showing guys slurping beer, eyes fixed on ESPN's SportsCenter?)
And it's not that colleges aren't bending over backward to admit the men they find. Favoring male applicants, in fact, is what caught the attention of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which in November announced that it would investigate whether colleges discriminate against women by granting admissions preferences to men.
Most likely, college admissions officers aren't losing any sleep over the investigation, which has no legal authority. For a private college, favoring men—or football players or clarinet players—appears to be legally survivable, at least for now.
What does cause them to lose sleep, however, is the lost revenue and social awkwardness that can ensue from gender imbalances. And so they continue to ask: Where are those men?
One possibility is that admissions officers are looking in all the wrong places. The boys are findable; it's just that they don't necessarily attend 11th- and 12th-grade college nights in the gym.
My suggestion: Skip back a few grades to ninth grade, where you'll find schools awash with boys. Ninth grade is the "bulge" year, in which nationally there were 113 boys for every 100 girls in 2007, according to the Southern Regional Education Board, which tracks such statistics. Depending on race, ethnicity, and location, the ninth-grade bulge for boys gets even bigger: Among black Americans, there are 123 boys for every 100 girls; among Hispanics, 122. Geographically the bulge is larger in the 16 states covered by the board, with Florida registering 117 boys for every 100 girls.
As an example, let's take Baltimore's Patterson High School, located in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. If you showed up to recruit the Class of 2009 on graduation day, you would have found 164 female and 107 male students. A quirk of birthrates? Not exactly. Had you checked on the ninth-grade class there in September 2008, you would have found 278 girls and 400 boys.
At this point you've probably guessed the cause: Incoming ninth-grade boys unprepared for the college-track rigors of high school get slammed and held back for a repeat "experience."
At my request, Thomas C. West, a senior research analyst with the National Opinion Research Center, at the University of Chicago, plotted the numbers. He drew upon his research from the "Still a Freshman" study released recently by the Johns Hopkins University, which looked at ninth-grade repeaters.
Nationally in 2006-7, approximately 250,000 male students (12 percent of all ninth-grade boys) and 178,000 female students (9 percent of the girls) repeated ninth grade, says West. So about 72,000 more boys than girls repeated ninth grade that year.
On the surface, holding back unprepared students seems logical. Perhaps, but the downside is the steep dropout numbers that result. In the highest-poverty school districts, as few as 15 percent of students held back in the ninth grade make it to graduation day, according to other research from Johns Hopkins.
Across the country, superintendents are discovering, much to their surprise and dismay, that ninth grade has turned into the biggest dropout year. Discipline problems often get blamed for the high dropout rates, but principals consistently tell me that discipline issues often mask learning difficulties. West hears the same. "When you get frustrated [academically], it's seen as more manly to go out fighting than suffering the humiliation of revealing to classmates that the classroom material is beyond your grasp," he says.
And what about the students who struggle to repeat ninth grade and do manage to graduate? Most likely they end up academically damaged. To them, college seems unattainable. They don't bother showing up for those college nights at the gym.
Some people will argue that those students were never college material in the first place. True, few of those 72,000 boys each year were probably Princeton-bound. And if you listen to conservative education commentators, these boys shouldn't even be thinking about college. The country already has too many "degreed" burger flippers, they argue.
There are reasons to think otherwise. First, such gender imbalances trigger unhealthy (and expensive) social trends. Among African-Americans, women graduate from college at twice the rate of men, leaving few black "marriageable mates"—men whose education credentials match those of black women. That's a contributing factor to the soaring out-of-wedlock birthrate among black women.
Also, if President Obama is right about improving the flagging U.S. position in world education rankings, the country needs to rapidly ramp up the number of college graduates. Given the healthy number of women already in the college pipeline, we can't avoid reaching out to men. At least some of those 72,000 lost boys need to be found.
Families and schools bear the biggest burden here, but colleges and universities can play an important role by taking steps like these:
n Scratch ninth grade from calculations of grade-point averages for all students. Boys are getting clobbered by school reforms that push higher-level academic skills, especially advanced literacy skills, into the lowest grades. They fall behind quickly, get passed through middle school, and then hit a wall in ninth grade as they enter high-stakes territory. Even if the boys recover, their senior-year GPA's will never match those of the girls. Think of it this way: improving boys' GPA's will allow you to scale back those male admissions preferences, making you less of a target for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
n Help elementary and secondary schools align their graduation standards with college-placement standards. It's embarrassing when students get straight B's, or even better, in high-school English, pass the state high-school exit exam, and land in remedial English at the local community college or state university. And yet it happens all the time in English and math. Nationally, an alarmingly high number of first-year students in community colleges get shunted into remedial courses.
n Adopt a community college that in turn adopts community high schools. I'm writing a case study for a foundation about the Pathway program at Northern Virginia Community College, which does just that. Special counselors prowl high schools recruiting nontraditional college students. Their promise: Work with us, and we'll guarantee you a smooth path through community college and a guaranteed acceptance at a four-year college (in this case George Mason University) as long as you graduate with decent grades. Just for the record, it's working—even better than you might imagine.
n Shake up teachers' colleges. For the most part, those colleges deserve the opprobrium blasted their way. Delivering classroom-ready teachers has not been a notable achievement. One way to remedy that, however, is by hiring top school-district officials as part-time instructors. They have excellent motives for ensuring that your graduates turn out ready to be effective teachers the first week on the job. This works best, of course, if you're lucky enough to have high-performing urban districts as neighbors. That was the case for the Long Beach, Calif., Unified School District and California State University at Long Beach.
Let's be realistic. Making these changes won't guarantee that an additional 72,000 boys will show up each year at college nights. But at least admissions directors won't be looking for guys in all the wrong places.