The rate of attendance of males in overall proportion to females is now about 37% in the US. And the trend is international. Yes, there are more people attending college overall and that means more men than ever, but the ratio of male-to-female attendance is close to 1:2. That difference means a difference in the atmosphere on university and college campuses.
The University of Toronto in recent months has been a place where violent protests against the discussion of this issue have occurred. (Readers may loom for information about these events online.) This is puzzling. When women were underrepresented on campuses in the 1960s-1970s there was no such opposition to talking openly about the disproportion and what it meant for students in general attending higher education institutions. The result then was to recruit more women and, by 1980, the proportion was 50-50. Now, more than 40 years later, following a precipitous decline during the last 15 years (equal to the increase of women on campus in about the same period of time that led to parity) there is angry protest of discussion of the trend. I will speak on the topic on September 27 at the University of Toronto as a guest of the CAFE organization.
Why are young men deciding not to attend in the numbers they once did? Have young men changed? Yes and no.
No, young men have not changed in the sense that they are still inquisitive and want access to an environment during their closing teen years that offers them venues for discussion of ideas, opportunities to listen to faculty who have a lot to share with them, and a situation in which they can meet other young men and women who are serious about study as well as eager to enjoy the unique environment of the psychosocial moratorium that the college years are famous for providing.
However, the environment has changed on campusus and men feel less welcome on many -- perhaps most -- college campuses. This is a complex issue that is only now becoming clear even as a problem. A changing faculty, changes in content of programs and courses, and the disproportion of male/female classmates are causing young men to say no to college life, even though they know that not attending may mean being at a disadvantage when applying for certain jobs after graduation and being forbidden from going on for further study in the professions that require the bachelor's degree (medicine, law, nursing, veterinary medicine, dentistry, and to a great extent nearly all work in technology).
On the other hand: Yes, young men have changed, in the sense that many are finding power over their lives in striking out on entrepreneurial and other risky ventures that have a less predictable course than the four years of undergraduate education. Perhaps they are telling us by their absence on campuses that something is wrong with academe.
Young men have long been well known for enjoying a period of joy in exploring for its own sake (Wanderlust it was called). Maybe a revival of following the road not usually taken is the real meaning of declining male enrollments in college.
Or is it, after all, that they are finding a misandric (male-disapproving) environment on campuses. Indeed, what does it mean to a first-year male student to have to attend a date-rape seminar where they are told they harbor dangerous impulses that must be controlled, when they have never for a moment ever in their lives thought about coercing a female (or anyone) sexually.
Or perhaps it is the content of many courses, especially gender studies courses (once called women's studies courses) that draw on many disciplines (psychology, sociology, history, literature, languages) and often present a disparaging image of males. A balanced, all-are-welcome curriculum of content and discussion that honors all perspectives, points of view and traditions has been the hallmark of university education.
Whatever the reasons, the fact is that a trend exists -- fewer males applying, entering and staying to completion of the bachelor's degree -- and it means something. My thought is that deciding not to attend university (no matter the tremendous cost and the certainty of accruing enormous debt over four years) should not be based on the perception that they are not welcome. If it is about wanderlust, by all means take some years after high school to travel, try out a business, or settle back and read for a while.
If boys feel unwanted and unwelcome in the cultural environment of the university, the emotional fall-out will be significant. Do we want to harm our young men? I hope not. And if their absence means something else -- that there is something amiss at the heart of academe -- let us try to understand what that is.