Finally, a Thoughtful Answer to a Crucial Question | Inside Higher Ed

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The COVID-related enrollment drop at community colleges was much greater among male students than among female students. It has not been obvious why.

There’s no shortage of armchair (or Reddit) theories about gender in higher ed, of course. But most of those theories don’t stand up to even the most basic scrutiny. The sudden loss of childcare, for instance, could easily have hit women harder than men. Allegedly scary women’s studies programs are too small, when they exist at all, to explain very much, and most of the ones that do exist started before 2020. Essentialist theories about human nature or gendered work would have to explain why human nature changed from 2019 to 2020, which seems like a tall order. Until now, it has been a bit of a mystery.

That’s why I was so gratified to see a research paper using actual evidence to address the question. The paper, “Limited Supply and Lagging Enrollment: Production Technologies and Enrollment Changes at Community Colleges During the Pandemic,” by Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and Sarah Turner, crunches the numbers and determines that about 90 percent of the difference in attrition rates by sex could be explained by the larger percentage of men in fields in “assembly, repair, and maintenance (ARM),” in which instruction was harder to deliver online.

Comparing an automotive repair class to a psychology class makes the argument clear. Locally, for instance, we’ve had online sections of Intro to Psychology for years. Nothing in the subject matter prohibited online delivery. As a result, demand was strong for online sections even before the pandemic, and many of our psychology faculty were already experienced at online delivery when the pandemic hit. It’s true that a well-crafted online class is very different from a hastily adapted remote synchronous class, of course. But there was a history to draw upon, and nothing in the content of the courses made virtual delivery impossible.

Rebuilding a transmission is another matter. You’d be surprised how many students don’t have spare transmissions at home to work on. While certain principles can be explained online, and video demonstrations can be helpful—we discovered that small document cameras could be lowered into engines while someone narrated, which was pretty cool—there’s really no substitute for grabbing tools and getting in there. Repairing an engine or transmission requires some general theoretical sense of how they work, but it also requires a feel that’s both tactile and auditory.

When colleges had to go remote in 2020, the adjustment was harder in some areas than in others. Generally speaking, the most difficult ones were those that require hands-on learning and a lot of expensive equipment. Outside of allied health, those fields are dominated by male students. Given interrupted classes, fewer classes or no classes at all, more men walked away.

I like the explanation for a few reasons. Most basically, it’s consistent with empirical evidence. It treats enrollment by program rather than as an undifferentiated mass. It doesn’t rely on stereotypes. (Yes, enrollments sometimes comport with stereotypes—we have more men in automotive tech and more women in nursing—but those are facts on the ground; you don’t need a theory as to why, at least for this purpose.) And it suggests a reason for hope: when the pandemic finally subsides and we’re able to be in person more reliably, we may well see male enrollments bounce back. That would be an excellent outcome on a number of levels.

My honest thanks to Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and Sarah Turner for shedding some badly needed light on an important topic. More of this, please!

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