Men are missing from college campuses: What’s being done to bring them back?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
College students study in a courtyard at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Oct. 14, 2021. In the last two years, a decline in the number of men attending colleges and universities has accelerated, widening an already-existing gender gap.

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In the past two years, the number of men in higher education has plummeted. According to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse, male enrollment fell a total of 9.3% from 2019 to 2021, 4 percentage points more than the drop for women. 

The college gender gap is decades old, but experts are worried about its acceleration. 

Why We Wrote This

A startling percentage of men are dropping out of college – or staying away to begin with. Schools are stepping up with programs to support men of color, hoping to remove one more barrier to equality.

Schools across the country are creating programs aimed at supporting young men in particular, so more men can earn postsecondary degrees.

The University of North Texas, in Denton, created its Martial Eagles program in 2017, focused mainly on first-year African American men – the school’s population most likely to drop out. In it, about two dozen students share a dorm, team-building activities, and a “college 101”-style seminar. The goal is to build habits and make friends, so students leave with a degree. 

So far, says Harold Woodard, program director for strategic retention initiatives, the school’s data shows the initiative is working.

“They got to know each other really well and developed a sense of brotherhood, and from that came a desire to allow others to hold them accountable,” he says.

When Emmanuel Smith arrived on Montgomery College’s campus in Rockville, Maryland, two years ago, he didn’t know if he would stay. 

Mr. Smith was in his late 20s and had tried another community college before. It didn’t go well. Someone misfiled his paperwork, and he got bills for classes he didn’t take. This time, as he walked into the school office to fill out financial aid paperwork, he didn’t know what to expect. 

Then he met the administrator. 

Why We Wrote This

A startling percentage of men are dropping out of college – or staying away to begin with. Schools are stepping up with programs to support men of color, hoping to remove one more barrier to equality.

The staff member was older and, like Mr. Smith, African American. While helping with paperwork, the administrator talked about his own time in college, and why it’s important for Black men to get degrees. He offered Mr. Smith his business card, and told him he was in the right place. Now a year away from finishing his degree, the education major still believes him. 

“They really care about you here and I felt that,” says Mr. Smith. “That made me want to pursue school even more.”

Colleges and universities around the country hope more male students feel the same way. In the last two years, the number of men in higher education has plummeted. According to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse, male enrollment fell a total of 9.3% from 2019 to 2021, 4 percentage points more than the drop for women. 

The college gender gap is decades old, but experts are worried about its acceleration. Male enrollment is down across higher education, but the recent drops are highest among men of color in community colleges. The financial value of an undergraduate degree is rising, and a generation of young men without one could widen inequality.

There’s no quick fix for the issue, which experts say begins well before college. Still, as universities try to understand why so few men have enrolled, it’s becoming more important to retain those who already have. Support programs for men of color are growing more common in an attempt to better meet student needs. Alone, they won’t reverse the overall trend. But for students like Mr. Smith, retention efforts can have a powerful impact. 

“What we know across the nation [is that in] colleges who focus programs like this directly on a community of students who need special attention ... there has been a shift in completion,” says Carmen Poston-Travis, director of student affairs and initiatives at Montgomery College, which has hosted an annual Male Students of Color Summit since 2013.

“More than anything, it’s a community,” she says. “And students want to have a sense of belonging.”

Pete Vidal/Montgomery College
A speaker addresses participants at Montgomery College's 2018 Male Students of Color Summit in Germantown, Maryland. The summit is part of a wider effort at Montgomery and in higher education to retain male students of color.

Risk vs. reward

There are multiple explanations for the recent drop in male enrollment. Experts don’t know which reason, or reasons, are most important. But there’s wide agreement that gender matters in American education. 

On average in the K-12 system, boys earn lower grades and spend less time studying than girls, says Thomas DiPrete, professor of sociology at Columbia University and co-author of “The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What It Means for American Schools.” 

The difference isn’t innate. It’s cultural, he says. More often than girls, boys are pushed to succeed outside the classroom – in sports or manual work – or ridiculed for less physical hobbies, like art. According to Dr. DiPrete’s research, girls are more likely than boys to say they like school.

The trend continues into college. Men enroll at lower rates than women and graduate less often. That’s especially true for men of color at two-year colleges, who account for most of the recent drop in enrollment. 

“The fact that it was primarily impacting community college students is not terribly surprising because those students are the lowest income generally among all college enrollments,” says Douglas Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “They’re also ... the most on the margin of whether or not they would be going to college at all.”

College, for many of these students, is a delicate balance of cost and benefit. For many, says Dr. Shapiro, the pandemic tipped the scales. Women tended to stay home with children as schools and child care centers closed. Men worked longer – and for many of them, college became harder to finish, harder to afford, and harder to schedule.

Or harder to restart.

Back to school? 

Sean Kullman, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, did not enjoy high school. He scored well, but didn’t feel engaged and didn’t connect with his classmates. When he graduated in 2018, Mr. Kullman wanted some time off – just not this much.

“As soon as I was getting ready to start looking at colleges again ... COVID hit and I knew from some previous experience that I did not want to do an online schooling kind of thing,” he says. “Now I’m just kind of waiting for that whole thing to pass.”  

While he waits, Mr. Kullman is working in the cheese department of a local grocery store and debating whether to enroll in school. He grew up hearing that college was the only option after high school, but doesn’t believe that anymore. He may pass on college. 

The risk for higher education is that many others feel the same way.

“The trend as far as enrollment is across the board,” says Dr. Travis of Montgomery College. “All community colleges have experienced lower enrollment.” 

Many four-year institutions have as well. The University of North Texas has nearly recovered to pre-pandemic enrollment, says Harold Woodard, program director for strategic retention initiatives. But for the last two years, he says, student numbers have been inconsistent.

In the fall of 2017, UNT created its Martial Eagles program, focused mainly on first-year African American men – the school’s population most likely to drop out. In it, about two dozen students share a dorm, team-building activities, and a “college 101”-style seminar. The goal is to build habits and make friends, to help students leave the Denton, Texas, campus with a degree. So far, says Mr. Woodard, the school’s data shows the initiative is working.

“They got to know each other really well and developed a sense of brotherhood, and from that came a desire to allow others to hold them accountable,” he says. 

Across colleges, retaining students takes this kind of effort, says Dr. Travis. Male students at Montgomery College tend to work and study full time. Many support their families. Financial aid matters, as does a clear connection between their careers and coursework. 

Nearby, in Arnold, Maryland, Anne Arundel Community College is working on similar programs. Several years ago it began the Black Male Initiative, meant to address low retention rates. The first semester of college often decides whether students will stay enrolled. The BMI attempts to lower financial, academic, and social barriers in those first few months, says Dr. Reginald Stroble, its coordinator. 

“Most times than not a student’s aptitude or ability to learn [is not the problem],” says Dr. Travis. “It’s the struggles that they face with other nonacademic barriers.”

Piecing it together

More than 10 years ago, that was the case for Mr. Smith. He spent his high school years working and caring for his mother, who is legally blind. When he went to school, his favorite parts of the day were lunch and gym. By the end of his senior year, he wanted more time to work – not study. 

That changed because of the influences around him, like the administrator he met the first day at Montgomery. 

Alongside a full-time job in Baltimore, Mr. Smith now takes three or four courses a semester and hopes to transfer to a four-year college, before earning a master’s degree and becoming an art therapist. At his current pace, he’ll graduate next December, and for the first time in his life, he can see the future his education is creating. 

“I’ve never been a fan of school,” he says, “until now.” 

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