In the wake of a pandemic that has caused the most significant enrollment declines in a generation, higher education’s road to recovery remains uncertain. Breaking down the impact based on gender, it’s clear that men are disappearing from college and university campuses—especially community colleges and large public universities—at rates never seen before. It’s a continuation of the decades-long trend of college women outenrolling and outperforming their male counterparts.
Long before we were focused on the public health threats of the pandemic, men were trending toward lower rates of college enrollment and completion. But today, the data signal a crisis. An analysis from the National Student Clearinghouse found that total male enrollment decreased 8.9 percent from spring 2020 to spring 2021, with decreases of 18.4 percent among Native American men, 14.3 percent for Black men and 12.6 percent for Latinos. The gender disparity in four-year, nonprofit university enrollment grew to an all-time high, with women outpacing men at 61 percent in that sector.
The dramatic declines in male enrollments raise worrisome questions about the long-term trajectories for men in education, the workforce and society. A growing number are not only disappearing from higher education but also leaving the workplace. For those who are working, not having a college degree still equates to earning less, on average, and being at higher risk for unemployment than college-educated peers. The trend of male student disengagement is particularly worrying because of its potential to reverse hard-earned progress toward boosting college completion rates among Black and Latinx learners, now the fastest-growing segment of the college-age population but who enroll in colleges and complete their degrees at lower rates.
So what’s going on here, guys? While the exact causes of this trend line are difficult to pin down, the pressures on men to work and provide are commonly cited, as are campus climates and services not tailored to men, increased uncertainty during the pandemic, negative impacts of the pandemic on career choices, not wanting to take classes online, and the lack of internet access and/or technology.
Not surprisingly—because higher education was male-dominated for so long—services and programs focused on male student success have been, until recently, relatively rare and unresearched. However, as the ratio of women’s enrollments and degree completion have overtaken those of men, we have started to see a change. People are increasingly asking, how can colleges and universities begin to boost male students’ motivation and success?
Theories of educational psychology and learning styles could help us to better understand why colleges and universities are finding men harder to reach. Differences in learning styles between men and women become ingrained during childhood through different expectations of play, development and learning and reinforced through K-12 schools and adolescence. And it’s engendered in differences between men and women in their willingness to seek out support services. In our experience, men respond to research surveys at lower rates, and outreach from colleges and universities to male students almost always has less impact.
Some institutions, recognizing the brewing crisis of male student disengagement long prior to the pandemic, have developed programs that may offer some valuable clues. In Texas, for example, the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color has been around since 2013, after the need for targeted approaches to boost male student success after enrollment and performance gaps became evident in their data.
An inaugural member of the consortium, Austin Community College, has created targeted mentoring, conferences, workshops and event programs for minority male students for nearly two decades. More recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, college leaders recognized they were going to need a different mechanism for engaging disengaged male students in a remote environment. So they began embedding tutors and academic coaches into high-enrollment courses with high rates of D, F and W grades. The initiative has grown from 50 sections in fall 2020 to 150 in spring 2021, and they expect to exceed 200 this fall.
Similarly, the University of Texas at San Antonio launched several efforts to eliminate disparities in male student success, including a new faculty microgrant program that provides funding for informal student-faculty interaction with high-priority groups, including minority men. Brothers United is supporting male students through formal mentoring as well as informal meet-ups focused on timely topics such as career development, personal branding and restorative justice.
The university conducted analyses to measure the impacts of all their major student success initiatives and services on a recurring basis. It found that the services with the highest impact for minority males, like tutoring and academic coaching, were largely used by high-performing students who tend to seek them on their own. To close that gap, the university’s student success team now uses data to identify and connect student populations who will reap the greatest benefits, such as minority males, first-year students and other at-risk students.
The University of South Florida is also taking aim at the systemic factors that create barriers to male students’ success. While it has earned national recognition for eliminating achievement gaps by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, equity gaps between women and men persist: across all colleges and demographic groups, men graduate at rates 18 percent lower than women at the four-year mark and 9 percent lower at the six-year mark.
To create a blueprint for actions to ensure that all men succeed in college, the Tampa-based public research university commissioned the Presidential Advisory Committee on the Status of Men. Using course-level data and academic behaviors that signal success for male students, the ambitious initiative has prompted university leaders to make significant changes in academic and curricular planning and university processes.
With declining enrollment revenue and mounting operating costs incurred during the pandemic, most colleges and universities will not have significant resources to tackle this growing crisis of male student success. Institutional leaders must understand which services and interventions have the highest impact on recruiting and retaining male students.
Comparative research across multiple institutions offers an important starting point. Conducted from 2017 to 2020 by 84 diverse American campuses, including an even split of two- and four-year institutions, a meta-analysis from Civitas Learning of nearly 3,100 unique student success interventions evaluated programs based on their impact on male student persistence.
Male students, Latinx students and Black students at four-year universities saw the greatest increase in persistence from engagement activities including learning communities and event participation, as well as from academic advising and tools like schedule optimization software. Black, Latinx and male students at two-year institutions saw the greatest gain in persistence through academic advising, mentoring, degree-planning software, scholarships and financial aid, and supplemental instruction.
Equally important for institutions is to understand the unintended consequences of student outreach. A similar analysis last year found that nonpersonalized, automated advising alerts had a stronger negative effect on men than women. Without measurement, institutions lack the knowledge necessary to maximize the benefits of effective interventions and avoid unintended negative consequences.
The gap between men and women in college enrollment and completion began long before the pandemic, and the effects of the current crisis will take years, if not decades, to reverse. Counterintuitive though it may seem, meeting the needs of men, particularly from historically marginalized populations, should be a key area of focus as we work to address broader equity gaps in college access and completion.
A closer examination of the data may illuminate a path forward for designing high-impact initiatives that can tackle what appears to be a growing crisis of disengaged men in higher education today. Without it, we are just aiming in the dark, applying one-size-fits-all approaches that are clearly not working for men today.