Posted by: Gregory Linton | 08/04/2009

Facts about the Gender Gap in Undergraduate Enrollment

On March 6, Richard Whitmire published an editorial on the Inside Higher Ed website entitled “Stop Avoiding the Issue of Failing Boys.” In this editorial, he exposed the “dirty little secret” of higher education that almost no one wants to talk about–namely, that only 42 percent of four-year college degrees are earned by men. While I was working on my MA in Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education at Michigan State University, I would occasionally raise in class the issue of the gender gap and the disturbing consequences of it, but the response from my classmates and instructors was always complete apathy. So I was pleased to see that Whitmire was daring enough to raise this seemingly untouchable issue.

Out of curiosity, I performed a quick search to see how many recent articles I could find about the gender gap in college enrollment. I found that Inside Higher Ed included one article in 2005, two in 2008, and two so far in 2009, including Whitmire’s editorial. The Chronicle of Higher Education had one article in 2007 and one editorial in 2008. I also found a press release by the American Council on Education in 2006 and an article in the Weekly Standard in 2006. This is scant coverage for a phenomenon that should be regarded as a monumental social scandal. I want to explain why this should receive more attention by listing some of the consequences of the gender gap. But first I want to explain the facts about how we got to this point.


For over 300 years of higher education in America, male students outnumbered female students. Through the 1960s and 1970s, the gap closed rapidly. According to tUndergraduate Enrollment Trendshe Digest of Education Statistics: 2008, 1950 marked the first time that more than 30% of the college population was female. 1967 was the first year that women made up more than 40% of the college population. In 1979, women finally achieved majority status, and over the past 30 years they have steadily extended the gap so that in 2007 they made up 57.2% of the college population. From 2000 to 2007, female undergraduate enrollment increased by 20% while male enrollment increased by 16%. Interestingly, 2006 marked the first time since 1956 that their percentage share declined from the previous year, a drop of .1%. It dropped another .1% in 2007.


Another way of looking at these trends is by considering the raw numbers. In 1976 (according to a US Census Bureau report), there were 5.3 million male undergraduates; in 2007 (according to the Condition of Education 2009 report of the National Center for Education Statistics), there were 6.7 million, an increase of 1.4 million.  In 1976, there were 4.65 million female undergraduates; in 2007, there were 8.9 million, an increase of 4.25 million female students! Women have been steadily increasing their participation in higher education while the participation of men has been stagnant by comparison.



Enrollment ProjectionsThese trends will continue, according to the NCES’s Projections of Education Statistics to 2017, so that the gender gap will continue to get wider. From 2007 to 2017, male enrollment will grow by 860,000, but enrollment for women will grow by 1.3 million. By 2017, there will be 4.3 million women enrolled in 2-year institutions but only 3.0 million men, a difference of 43%. In 4-year institutions, 7.2 million women will be enrolled compared to 5.5 million men, a difference of 31%. Altogether, 3 million more women than men will be enrolled in college in 2017.

Another interesting fact is the number of male and female students who enter college within 12 months after graduating from high school or completing a GED. 1974 was the first year that more women (740,000) than men (736,000) enrolled in college immediately after high school graduation, and women enrollees have outnumbered male enrollees every year since. 2004 marked the first time that more than 1 million women enrolled in college immediately after high school graduation, but only 815,000 men did so that year.

Comparing the percentages of male high school graduates who immediately enter college with female graduates is also interesting. 1976 marked the first time that more than 50% of female high school graduates entered college, but this had been true of men for many years, although in 1976 only 47.2% of male graduates enrolled in college. Since then, enrollment rates of women have increased until they reached 60% in 1988 and 70% in 1997. More than 70% of females also enrolled in 2004 and 2005. By contrast, the percentage of male enrollees exceeded 64% only in 2005 (66.5%). The percentage dipped back down to 65.8% in 2006, but the percentage for females also dipped to 66.1%.

Another angle on this problem is to consider how many men and women complete their degrees. In 2005-06, bachelor’s degrees were conferred on 855,000 women but on only 631,000 men (57.5% vs. 42.4%). If 224,000 more women than men received bachelor’s degrees every year for ten years, the result would be 2.24 million more women with degrees than men.

Can these differences be accounted for by a larger female population? Actually men in the 18-24 age range outnumber women. The US Census Bureau projects that in 2010 there will be 15.7 million men aged 18-24 and 15.0 women. By contrast, in 2010 there will be 8 million men enrolled in college and 10.6 million women.

Of course, no one should be concerned about the growing enrollment of women in higher education. Ideally, 100% of male and female high school graduates should enroll in college. But the concern is that the enrollment of men has increased lagged increasingly behind the women. There are two results of these trends that I think have damaging consequences for our society, economy, and families. One result is that large numbers of men are not receiving a college education. The other result is the increasing disparity between an educated female population and a less-educated male population. In my next post, I will describe some consequences of these trends.


  1. A wel written writing on a similar thing..the impact of lecturer student relationship on academic dishonesty and need some articles on it dnt knw if u can help thank u…

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