Recent reports that the male percentage of the U.S. college population has fallen to 40%, the lowest ever, have generated predictable concerns. If, as it is often said, today’s young people will need at least a bachelor’s degree to be successful in tomorrow’s economy, then the reluctance of so many men to pursue one would seem to be a threat, both to themselves and to the larger society. How will the coming contingent of low-educated men fare in an increasingly technological world? And how will the relatively high number of successful women find enough husbands to form families and nurture successive generations?
Yet history teaches that trends that at first seem irrational, anti-social, or even self-destructive can sometimes reflect an underlying wisdom. Certainly, those families that abandoned the relative security of ancient Italy for the Roman Empire’s more distant provinces ended up far less vulnerable to the later barbarian invaders. Similarly, many of the medieval patients who defied their doctors’ orders and declined the standard bloodletting treatment likely saved their own lives. Coming closer to the present, those investors who did not go along with the “can’t miss” margin account strategy so popular on Wall Street in the summer of 1928 had good reason to congratulate themselves just a year later.
Could something similar be happening with the growing number of young men who refuse to go from high school on to college? Are they smarter than they appear?
Judging by the reader comments attached to the various alarmist articles on declining male enrollment, a good number of their countrymen suspect they are. Noting that the atmosphere on the nation’s campuses has become increasingly hostile to masculinity—with courses depicting white men as intrinsically racist, a quasi-judicial system biased in favor of women, and a general elevation of emotion over rigorous debate—many article commenters, both men and women, go on to express a surprising admiration for those adolescent males who choose to avoid it.
But is this supposed feminization of higher education the only reason why such a disproportionately large number of men are declining to attend college or university? It seems to me that there are at least four other considerations which, consciously or unconsciously, might be influencing them as well.
Political future #1. Just over forty years ago, President Ronald Reagan ushered in a low-tax revolution which made it possible for better educated people, not only to get higher paying jobs, but to keep and enjoy the financial fruits of their labor. But between society’s current need to pay down the Covid-juiced federal debt and the rise of progressive thinking in the Democratic party, the probable tax burden on high earners has clearly diminished what ambitious workers can expect to receive for their labors. This development may not be as important to women, for whom the ability to earn a prestigious career title is still a historical novelty. But believing that some future progressive government will always provide them with at least a comfortable lifestyle, many young men might feel it’s not worth the educational effort required to achieve the shrinking financial reward.
Political future #2. Everything noted above, except that with fewer Americans working hard to produce needed goods and services the government goes broke, reducing once-promised entitlements to a trickle. In which case, what’s a better way for today’s young man to invest his time: earning an expensive university degree or going to work long enough for his brother-in-law, the electrician (plumber, bricklayer, or carpenter), to learn a useful trade? Name one novel or movie about some dark economic future where the most privileged male survivors are waving their college diplomas.
An abusive and uncaring educational system. In the 180 years since Horace Mann’s invention of our public school system, the nature of manufacturing has evolved from a reliance on physical labor to sophisticated industrial robots, the nature of military service from riding horses to mastering smart weapons, and the nature of accounting from paper journal keeping to the use of computerized spreadsheets. Yet in all that time the underlying structure of K-12 education, with its fixed grade levels, uniform class structure, one-size-fits-all curriculum, and nine-month school year has remained essentially unchanged—a testament to society’s interest, not in addressing the unique instructional needs of each child, but in challenging teachers and administrators as little as possible. After 13 years of enduring such a system—which consistently ranks near the bottom of international comparisons—is it so improbable that a good portion of young men, more impatient by nature than women of their age, might have had enough of any schooling?
Useless coursework. In 2005, Dr John Ioannidis, co-director of Stanford University’s Meta-Research Innovation Center, published an influential study which showed that much of what for passes for ”settled science” in medicine, biology, economics, education research, the social sciences, and other university disciplines cannot, in fact, be replicated. In other words, by the ultimate test of scientific validity—getting the same result from repeating the same experiment—a lot of what professors teach their students isn’t true.
Indeed, concerns about what is called “experimental irreproducibility” have been growing for nearly a decade. In 2012, scientists at the biotech firm Amgen found they could confirm the results of only six of 53 supposedly landmark cancer studies published in prominent journals. Four years later, Nature conducted an online survey of scientists, 70 percent of whom said they’d tried and failed to reproduce their colleagues’ published findings.
While it is doubtful that the average male high schooler thinks much about the fact that up to half of all academic findings are likely wrong, this embarrassing truth does contribute to the larger sense that most college and university coursework is based more on professors’ personal and political prejudices than any kind of useful information. Again, this growing impression may not be as important to women, for whom the bachelor’s degree opens opportunities previously denied their sex, but for men it can easily seem that a once-useful educational experience has been diminished for them.
Presently, America’s college and universities appear content to treat the declining number of male undergraduates with the least amount of effort—as a technical problem that can be solved by quietly lowering their admissions standards for men or by expelling fewer fraternity boys for misconduct. Understandable, perhaps, as getting to the heart of the problem would require a fundamental challenge to what these schools teach and how they operate.
But when the academy is enrolling 50 percent more women than the opposite sex, young men are clearly trying to tell us something important. And those school officials who continue to respond by just tinkering on the margins are grossly failing in their duty to the larger society.
Lewis M. Andrews was executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy from 1999 to 2009. He is author of the new book Living Spiritually in the Material World (Fidelis Books).