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Education Reporter

Where the Education Gender Gap is Leading America

By Bill Costello

As early as kindergarten, a gender gap in academic achievement is evident in American schools. Girls are excelling; boys are underachieving. The longer students are in school, the wider the gap becomes.

Boys' academic performance relative to girls has been plummeting for decades. Boys are more likely than girls to earn poor grades, be held back a grade, have a learning disability, form a negative attitude toward school, get suspended or expelled, or drop out of school.

This is not news. You've most likely heard all of this before. What may be news, however, is how the growing education gender gap is beginning to impact — and will continue to impact — colleges, the workforce, the marriage rate, and the fatherlessness rate in America.

The Changing College Campus
U.S. college enrollment is higher than ever. This is great news for Americans. Well, actually, it's great news for women, who now outnumber men in college by four to three. Forty years ago, the opposite was true: men outnumbered women in college by four to three. The tipping point occurred in the late 1970s. The College of William and Mary could now be more accurately described as the College of Mary and Mary.

In absolute numbers, more men are attending college than ever before. However, the rate of increase among men has been one-sixth that of women over the past 20 years. The problem is not that more women are attending college; the problem is that men aren't keeping pace with them.

The disparity is even greater among minorities. For example, African-American women outnumber African-American men in college by two to one. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that minorities will be the majority in America by 2050. As minorities make up an increasing share of the citizenry, the college gender gap will grow even wider.

Not only are men less likely than women to go to college, they're also less likely to graduate once there. And the ones who do graduate are less likely than their female cohorts to do it within four years. Tom Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, warned that if statistical trends were to continue at their current rate there would be no men graduating from college after 2067.

While college enrollment is growing, college graduation rates have remained stagnant, which means that more and more students are dropping out of college; most of them are men. Forty years ago, one in five mid-20-something Americans was a college dropout. Now it's one in three. That represents a lot of wasted potential.

It turns out that when the gender ratio on campus tips decidedly toward women, both men and women become less attracted to that campus. Men don't want to enroll in what is perceived as a women's college, and women want men around to date.

This presents a dilemma for college admissions officers because most of the applicants are women and the average female applicant has a higher G.P.A., participates in more extracurricular activities, and writes a better essay than the average male applicant. So admissions directors must either admit less-qualified men or risk losing the gender balance on campus. Increasingly, they are choosing the former.

Perhaps many men are dropping out of college because they can't keep up with the diligent, accomplished women they're competing against.

The Changing Workforce
Hillary Clinton came as close as one possibly could to becoming the Democratic nominee for president. Sarah Palin made history as the Republican Party's first female candidate for vice president. Nancy Pelosi was elected as the first female speaker of the House. There are now more female senators, congresswomen, and state legislators than ever before.

Women have a growing influence on the fields of law and government. They represent half of law school students and one-third of lawyers. By 2050, they're projected to represent 60% of law school students. Women constitute half of medical school students and one-fourth of physicians. They're projected to constitute 70% of medical school students and the majority of physicians by 2050. According to a U.S. Census Bureau report, women are starting businesses at twice the rate of men. They're also rapidly rising into managerial and administrative positions.

In short, women are becoming richer and more powerful - and this is a good thing for America. Fueling this trend is the growing number of women earning college degrees. More education pays off in a big way. Those with a bachelor's degree earn, on average, nearly twice what those with just a high school diploma earn in a year, and roughly $1 million more over a lifetime.

Among 25- to 29-year-olds, 33% of women have earned at least a bachelor's degree compared with just 23% of men. This is the first generation of women to be more educated than their male counterparts. This shift means that women will increasingly get the high-paid jobs while men will experience a drop in earnings. This is already happening. Men in their 30s are the first generation to earn significantly less income than their fathers' generation did at the same age.

As the number of jobs that require little education decreases, more and more men will become unemployed. In the current economy, unemployment is higher and rising faster for men than for women.

Some may argue that it's still a man's world. After all, men still wield more power and earn more money than women. This is all true - for now. But a change is coming.

The reason it is still a man's world is that previous generations of men earned more college degrees than previous generations of women. However, as women's academic achievement soars, the male advantage will gradually end and the female advantage will begin.

The Changing Marriage Rate
Fewer Americans are getting married. Married couples now represent a minority of all American households. For the first time ever, most women are now living without a husband. Driving this trend is the growing ratio of college-educated women to college-educated men. As the ratio continues to grow, there will be fewer college-educated women who are able to find college-educated men to marry.

Many of these women choose not to marry at all rather than marry non-college-educated men who are likely to earn significantly less than they do. At the same time, many non-college-educated men are not interested in marrying college-educated women. A study led by Columbia University economics professor Ray Fisman found that these men tend not to pursue women whom they perceive as smarter than themselves.

Consequently, non-college-educated men are finding it increasingly difficult to get married. Thirty years ago, only 6% of men in their early 40s without college degrees had never married. Now it's 18% and still rising. The problem is that there are fewer and fewer women without college degrees for them to marry. And even these women are striving to marry college-educated men with better financial prospects. It is also becoming increasingly difficult for a husband without a college degree to support a wife, as blue-collar jobs move to low-wage countries.

This is not to say that college-educated women and non-college-educated men never get married. But these marriages tend not to last. Marriages are more likely to end in divorce when wives earn more than their husbands. Thirty years ago, wives earned more than their husbands in 16% of marriages. Now it's 25% and continuing to rise. By 2050, nearly half of married women will earn more than their husbands.

Wives who earn more than their husbands are still often saddled with most of the household chores and child-care responsibilities. Being a full-time or even a part-time stay-at-home dad is not a role that men are actively stepping into. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are currently 5.6 million stay-at-home moms and only 143,000 stay-at-home dads. The traditional marriage wherein the husband brings home the bacon and the wife fries it up in a pan is becoming less common. Even more uncommon is the marriage in which the wife brings home the bacon and the husband fries it up in the pan.

Very few husbands choose to shoulder half or more of the household chores and child-care responsibilities - even if they are unemployed or only working part-time. When a wife is the family breadwinner and comes home to more than her share of the chores, she often decides that she would be better off without a husband.

For better or for worse, the future is not bright for the institution of marriage.

The Changing Fatherlessness Rate
The rise in the number of single American women has given birth to another trend: the rise in single motherhood. The nonmarital birth rate rose sharply from 18% in 1980 to 39% in 2006. According the National Center for Health Statistics, this trend is not being fueled by teenage mothers, but rather by women in their 30s and 40s.

Women are choosing single motherhood because men, we hear, have nothing to offer. Books such as Peggy Drexler's Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men contribute to this growing perspective.

Do men have nothing to offer? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that children from fatherless homes are more likely to commit suicide, run away, have behavioral disorders, abuse alcohol, use drugs, commit rape, and end up in prison. This is true regardless of the mother's age, race, or socioeconomic status.

Clearly, fathers matter and have much to offer their children. So do mothers. On average, children raised by both parents experience fewer problems than children raised by single mothers.

Our sons are seeing fewer male role models in their lives. 91% of elementary teachers and 65% of secondary teachers are females. At home, more boys than ever live without a father. Some single mothers recruit males - uncles, grandfathers, friends - to serve as role models for their sons. While helpful, these men are no substitute for a father who has a vested interest in his son's life.

The rise in fatherlessness is a vicious cycle: fatherless boys are twice as likely to drop out of school; they earn less money without a college education; women are becoming more educated than men and aren't interested in marrying men who earn less money than they do; so the number of single women rises; they choose single motherhood; fatherlessness rises; the cycle starts all over again.

The National Center for Fathering conducted a poll that found that 72% of Americans think that fatherlessness is the most significant family or social problem facing our nation. America is the world's leader in fatherless families.

America's Future
In short, the education gender gap that starts in kindergarten is leading to a nation of undereducated men who are contributing less and less to the economy and the family structure. This will adversely impact our nation's productivity, prosperity, and culture.

It's in the interest of women as well as men to turn this situation around. It's already too late to make up for the generations of boys whose educational attainment did not live up to its potential. However, it's not too late to help the current generation of boys.

They deserve better. So do their mothers and future wives.

Bill Costello, training director of Making Minds Matter, teaches parents and teachers the best strategies for educating boys. He can be reached at www.makingmindsmatter.com or trainer@makingmindsmatter.com.

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