Conference addresses lack of male students

Educators, researchers discuss reasons why fewer men go to college

November 17, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

From boys lured away from books by images of muscular models to the failure to see the connection between a bachelor's degree and a decent job, the explanations for a steady drop in male college students ran the gamut during a daylong conference on that issue at Goucher College yesterday.

About 75 educators and researchers heard presentations on the hard-wiring of boys' brains and different discipline patterns for boys and girls.

"I think people are leaving here with a lot to think about," said Goucher President Judy Jolley Mohraz. "We will be talking about these ideas with each other for some time."

Sponsored by Goucher, the conference was spurred by statistics that show a steady decline in the number of men attending and graduating from college since 1970.

Long-term trend

"This is a very, very long-term trend," Thomas G. Mortenson, the Iowa researcher who first called attention to these statistics last year, told the group. He showed that, though the trend goes across all race and class groups, the differences between men and women are greatest at lower income levels.

Mortenson theorized that in the same years that the feminist movement has pioneered gains for women in education and employment, the traditional male roles in industry and agriculture have disappeared, leading to men's discouragement.

Catherine Steiner Adair, a Harvard research psychologist who has written on the effect of media images on female eating disorders, said that one reaction to this trend is "hyper-masculine" media images -- models, sports figures and television stars.

"The anti-intellectual messages that these images are conveying are very serious," she said, noting that her son, who attends a private school in Boston, was teased for his intellectual interests. "They called him Brainiac. Something is going on here."

Even successful male business figures -- such as Bill Gates and other computer entrepreneurs -- often brag about their lack of a college degree, she said.

New perceptions

Lester Thurow, an economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the disappearance of the middle class in an America swept into a global economy dominated by technology means that men no longer see the college degree as a ticket to a better life.

"In some sectors, there is not an obvious payoff for education," he said.

In remarks prepared for the conference, former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller said it can be hard to persuade a high school graduate who can make $30,000 a year repairing air conditioners to pursue a college degree. During his term earlier in the decade, Miller, a Democrat, gained national acclaim for establishing a guaranteed college scholarship for B students.

"Higher education has to have a higher calling, to produce truly enlightened citizens of the world," wrote Miller, who was called back to Georgia because of an illness in his family.

Another Harvard psychologist, Daniel J. Kindlon, who has written on the development of boys, said that boys' later maturation process and resultant lack of impulse control in the first years of school can give them a bad experience when they first encounter education.

"This is when boys first get a sense of themselves as students," he said. "They turn away from the life of the mind."

Gap largest for minorities

The gap in male and female college attendance is largest among African-Americans and Hispanics. Aida Hurtado of the University of California, Santa Cruz, said her research found that Hispanic women in college were subjected to greater discipline at home than boys, that expectations placed on them from an early age were greater.

This brought out a frequently raised issue -- that in the changing economic and social world of the last 30 years, women have developed strategies to deal with what had been an oppressed situation. Men lack those strategies.

"The stereotype of the Latino family is that it is male-dominated," Hurtado said. But the result was that boys in these families were allowed to learn behaviors that did not serve them well in later life.

"Oppression forces you to create strategies," she said, noting that it is more difficult for men to deal with the handicaps that come from male privilege.

"It's clear that we can learn a lot from the women's movement," said Fred Lazurus, president of the Maryland Institute, College of Art, who attended the conference. "Men should start adopting many of the things that worked for women over the last 30 years."

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