And no, it’s not because they can’t get a date. This is total bogosity, and Echnidne nails it. Just anecdotally, despite men outnumbering women 55:45 when I was in college, I only had two dates, both total duds. We didn’t have a dating culture, we had back-of-the-bus hookups on band trips, which resulted in at least one happy marriage of 20 years (just among the readers of this blog!), and who knows how many others.
Anyway. There are some serious reasons to get upset about skewed sex ratios, and they have nothing to do with what happens in the back of the bus.
One is that, as Echidne mentions at the very end of her post, the real story lies in the intersections of masculinity with race and class. I don’t have stats handy for college attendance rates by race and gender. My own university tracks these things, and I bet someone in Institutional Research knows how many more African-American women than men are enrolled here, but if so, those figures are not publicly available. My university has made a good-faith and modestly successful effort to render this campus less lily-white. Just a half hour spent sitting outside the cafe at the Student Center makes it really obvious, though, that they’ve recruited far more African-American women than men.
However, we know that nearly one in four college-age black men is incarcerated. Studies have also shown more black men in this age group are in prison than in college. That is the real crisis.
A preponderance of women matters in other ways, too. In 2006, the Dean of Admissions at Kenyon College, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times explaining why boys are becoming the recipients of affirmative action in the admissions process. (And admission ratios are strikingly different for men and women at some schools, as the L.A. Times recently noted.) When the sex ratio of women to men rises above 60:40, Britz wrote, colleges become less attractive to men and women alike.
Declining numbers of male applications isn’t just an institutional problem, though colleges are desperate to boost overall enrollment to bolster their catastrophic budgets. What matters to the students and professors at these colleges is the progressive weakening of the applicant pool. Exposure to some really smart classmates is just as integral to a good education as having effective, dedicated professors. Holding all other factors equal, you simply won’t get as many strong students in the pool at colleges with highly skewed enrollment. (This cuts both ways: I remember getting recruitment material from Caltech my senior year of high school, and I tossed it when I saw there were seven boys for every girl.)
Specific programs and departments can become feminized, even if an university is close to a 50:50 ratio overall. Journalism, for example, skews pretty heavily female at my university, which is a bit ironic when you look at the sex-ratio among the profession’s heavy hitters, and especially among pundits. Historically, the feminization of a profession hasn’t necessarily been good news for the women in it. As women took over the profession of medicine in the Soviet Union, for instance, doctors’ prestige dropped.
You can argue that we shouldn’t be endorsing the sexism behind the degradation of female-dominated professions. You’d be right. And yet, as long as we live in a sexist society, we can expect colleges and programs to drop in prestige if they skew heavily female.
And then there’s the problem of anti-intellectualism, which in the post-Dubya era characterizes certain forms of masculinity. Guys who rush through their schoolwork to play xbox and drink beer obviously hurt themselves, first and foremost. These young men will be less likely to attend college, and less apt to excel if they do.
But the damage doesn’t stop with individual boys. The idea that studying is uncool for boys keeps getting propagated from the older kids to the younger. School athletic programs often uphold academic standards, but often the real message that boys learn from sports is that the quarterback impress girls more than the valedictorian.
Worst, anti-intellectualism contributes to a cultural climate in which no-nothings play well in politics. I’m not blaming young men for the teabaggers. And yet, if our men grow up with few critical thinking skills and even less intellectual curiosity, then Teabagger Nation may well be our future.
I not only think the college sex ratio is a problem, I don’t see the trends changing anytime soon. I’m not optimistic that this is “minor generational fishtailing” that will stabilize over time. Unfortunately, cultural factors (anti-intellectualism and the perceived opportunities for young men with a high-school diploma) – combined with the maturity gap that persists between most boys and girls at age 18 – will tend to exacerbate the feminization of certain disciplines and universities.
What to do? I’m certainly not advocating that girls make way for boys. I want to reframe the issue as not a zero-sum game, and advocate for raising male enrollments while not restricting women. As I mentioned, colleges are greedy for more warm, tuition-paying bodies (except in the Cal State system, which is a bloody mess).The only problem is finding enough boys who meet admission standards, because in the short run, girls are going to continue to be stronger candidates.
In the longer run, what I’d like to see is more boys being encouraged and expected to excel academically, or at least work up to their potential. I’d like to see more of them applying for college, and not just assume that they’ll find a well-paying blue-collar or IT job without a degree. I’d like to see a cultural climate where both girls and boys aspire to become as smart, well educated, and perceptive as possible. And I’d love to see them educated to be citizens of a democracy, not mere consumers.