Gender gap on campus widens


CHICAGO -- Women are increasingly outnumbering men at America's colleges, a gap that is widest - and most troublesome - among low-income and minority students, researchers said in a report released yesterday.

The share of males age 24 and younger dropped to 45 percent in 2003-2004, from 48 percent in 1995-1996. The gap is even wider for students older than 25, and among African-Americans and Latinos, particularly those from low-income families.

"Yes, this is a matter of concern, but let's put it in context," said Jacqueline King, the author of the study by the American Council on Education. "Gaps by gender are still much smaller than gaps in higher-education participation by race and by income."

"When there is this overwhelming imbalance, that to me means that maybe the women seem to be a little more ambitious," said Steve Adams, vice president of student affairs at Illinois State University, where 59 percent of students were women in fall 2005.

Illinois State, known for its teacher preparation programs, has historically attracted more women. "Men and minority students are the two areas that we put extra recruiting efforts into," Adams said.

At Northwestern University, where about 53 percent of undergraduates are women, the gender gap is more pronounced among low-income and minority students. Of low-income students registered last fall, 57 percent were women. For African-Americans, 71 percent were female. Hispanic women also made up a greater share of that group's enrollment, at 60 percent.

"If it's that imbalanced, it definitely warrants scrutiny," said Mike Mills, Northwestern's associate provost for university enrollment. The proportion of women would be even higher, he said, if it weren't for the School of Engineering, which overwhelmingly attracts men.

Researchers cautioned that the study does not suggest that fewer men are going to college or getting college degrees. The number of men entering and graduating from college continues to rise, although the number of women is rising more rapidly. Women began earning the majority of bachelor's degrees in 1985 - 58 percent in 2003-2004 - buoyed by a rise in the degrees earned by minority women. Hispanic men have made the least progress.

"This is not a situation of lower levels of achievement for men compared to some time in the past. Both groups are doing better, but women are succeeding at even higher rates," King said.

She added that men are not getting short-changed by the gains made by women. "Every time there is an additional woman in college, it doesn't mean there is one less space for a man," she said.

Among upper-income students, men and women attend college at nearly equal rates. But men are less likely to complete their bachelor's degrees within five years. King attributed the gaps among low-income students in part to salary differences between men and women who don't have college degrees.

"The economy is such that women figure out quickly that they aren't going to make it," King said. "We definitely need more research to understand why this is occurring."

Jodi S. Cohen writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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