Where are the Men? A Look at the Higher Ed Gender Gap.

Guest Correspondence

Photo courtesy Ringling College: Ringling College students collaborate in the Alfred R. Goldstein Library..

As an educator for many years, I believe that to be successful as an educational community, we must fully include as many diverse human experiences and identities as possible. Any incongruity in our demographics should be investigated as a potential breakdown of inclusion and addressed proactively and accordingly.

Gender inequality, for instance, has long been a major problem in many industries and, of course, historically, in educational settings. Often, these settings suffer from the under-inclusion of those who identify as women. However, there has been a unique shift in recent years—particularly in the realm of higher education. Currently, colleges and universities across the country are facing a major drop in enrollment and graduation rates… of men. 

According to a Pew Research report in December 2023, there are 1 million fewer American men ages 18 to 24 enrolled in college than there were in 2011 (compared to 200,000 fewer women in the same age range). The biggest decline has occurred in four-year colleges in the U.S., where young men now account for only 42% of enrollees, down from 47% in 2011.

At Ringling College of Art and Design, the widening gap is even more obvious: Nearly 75% of our current student population self-reported as female, compared to only a quarter as male. Twenty years ago at our school, and for decades before, those numbers were virtually reversed, and the men attending heavily outnumbered the women. To be clear, such a significant imbalance is a problem—no matter which way it skews.

It seems there are two primary issues at play in our current situation. One is that fewer men are following the traditional path of high school to higher education. And two, too many of those men who do enroll in four-year colleges still aren’t completing their degrees and graduating. But we don’t really know why.

We may never know for certain why these trends exist, and indeed there are likely many causes. Theories range from the economically positive (like the draw of career opportunities that aren’t directly tied to college education such as apprenticeship programs and trade schools) to the culturally problematic (like a rise in toxic masculinity and its aversion to education and emotional support).

Whatever the cause, we cannot simply lament these issues as “the way things are”—especially not when we, as a leading educational institution and community, are in a prime position to make a real difference. We need to address this gender discrepancy in college enrollment. And we must continue to support our male students throughout their educational journeys and their growth as human beings. Our opportunities shouldn’t just be open to men but should be equal; and the pursuit of higher education by men should be supported, encouraged and celebrated. This is especially true in the arts and other related fields. 

While ensuring that we embrace a broad range of students—including all genders, races and backgrounds—we must remain cognizant of workplace and industry inequality that still skews heavily in the other direction—in favor of men. Despite enrolling in and completing their degrees at a much higher rate, women who graduate from Ringling College and other four-year colleges still face career-long financial and leadership disadvantages in many industries. And this has to change. 

Neither of these issues is acceptable. We must take responsibility as leaders and as educators to do what we can to turn the tide and balance the scales.

Dr. Larry R. Thompson is President of Ringling College of Art and Design.

Photo courtesy Ringling College: Ringling College students collaborate in the Alfred R. Goldstein Library..

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