Number of men in college declines

Goucher symposium to seek the reason for graduation trend

November 15, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The declining percentage of male students in higher education -- a trend uncovered by a self-described "little numbers cruncher from Iowa" -- is the topic of a daylong symposium at Goucher College tomorrow.

"This has been beneath the radar," said Goucher President Judy Jolley Mohraz. "While we were paying a lot of attention to other trends, we simply weren't paying attention to the fact that the percentage of men graduating from colleges has been steadily decreasing since 1970."

Thomas G. Mortenson, who publishes an education newsletter in Oskaloosa, Iowa, said 55 percent of college graduates were male and 45 percent were female in 1970. Those figures are reversed today, and the trend toward more women than men getting degrees continues.

"You see it in every ethnic and racial group in every one of the 50 states," he said. "You can find it in Europe and in all industrialized countries."

The issue seems to have remained beneath the radar of many local educators.

"It is really interesting but we have done no work on it here," said Patricia S. Florestano, state secretary of higher education. "It has been put on the table and at some point we are going to have to take a look at it."

State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said most of the statistics for male and female high school students in Maryland taking college preparatory courses, the SAT and other indicators of college attendance are not out of proportion in the state, except for the oft-noted tilt toward women among African-American and, now, Hispanic students.

"If there is something that happens between graduation and enrollment, or in retention during college, that is something we should look at," she said.

Martha O'Connell, admissions dean at Western Maryland College, says that school has no trouble attracting male applicants.

"That might be because we offer so many sports programs, but I haven't heard too much about this from other admissions directors," she said.

"I don't know that many people are terribly alarmed," said Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. "This isn't something that a lot of people in my position across the country are talking about."

But Mortenson is alarmed and is trying to get people talking about the trend.

"I first wrote about this in 1995 and, at that point, I had noticed this trend for five or six years and had been waiting for someone else to say something," he said. "It's not my issue. I am concerned about accessibility and affordability of college. This is a different kind of crisis.

"You have to think of higher education as the caged canary at the end of the education pipeline," he said, arguing that the decline in men in college indicates problems throughout the education system.

Mohraz, noting that college graduates make an average of $23,000 per year more than high school graduates, said this trend has more than economic ramifications.

"It has important implications for the civic fabric of the country," she said. "Voting rates are declining more for men than for women and we know that college graduates are more likely to vote."

Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, best known for writing the SAT, begins the symposium with an address tonight. Tomorrow, Mortenson will speak, with Zell Miller, the former Georgia governor who created that state's HOPE scholarship program; Lester Thurow, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist; Nancy Dye, the president of Oberlin College; and other academics and researchers.

"Goucher, historically in the forefront of encouraging and supporting young women, is now a coed institution," Mohraz said of her school, which admitted only women until 1986. "We want to foster the same kind of commitment to academic achievement, the same climate of expectation, for men.

"But this isn't a Goucher issue, it's a national issue," she said. "When I talk to people and tell them the statistics, they are shocked. They don't realize this is a 30-year trend."

Mortenson said that the problem has been ignored because the education community is "intimidated by the feminist agenda," celebrating gains made by women during the past 20 years while ignoring the problems of men.

"I don't want to take anything away from what women have done, but we need to sit down and talk about this problem," he said.

Mortenson theorizes that behind the trend are basic changes in the country -- a labor force that moved from manufacturing and farm jobs that emphasized physical strength to service jobs dominated by women; and living conditions that moved from rural to urban "where women's natural social and communication skills give them an advantage over men."

He said it is in women's best interests to pay attention to this issue.

"This year, if a college-educated woman wants to marry a college-educated man, there are 120,000 of them that are not going to find such partners," he said. "If the trend continues, 10 years from now there will be 240,000 women unable to find such men."

But Mortenson says he is no expert on the causes of this problem. "I want to start a discussion on the plight and role of males in our society, a thorough discussion of what is going on in the lives of men," he said. "I hope to learn a great deal at Goucher."

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