Ten years ago we were reading that girls were being shortchanged in grades K through 12. Then we were told, no, it's boys who are in real trouble.
This year, the battlefield has moved to college campuses. Step onto one and you'll notice more women than men. The gender soldiers have noticed, too.
One of the warriors is Tom Mortenson, a higher education consultant from Iowa. He lectures nationwide on the subject, often asking, "What's wrong with the guys?" One of his points: The majority of associate and bachelor degrees are now awarded to women. "Girls have earned what they've achieved," he says. "But some of their progress has come at the expense of men."
Some higher education consultants and commentators are calling this a crisis. They haul out the numbers as further evidence that schooling at all levels has become increasingly unfriendly to males. The media have jumped on the story.
They all need to take a deep breath. There is no general educational crisis among men. Let's look at the government's data, analyzed by Jacqueline King, director of policy analysis for the American Council on Education, a think tank on higher education.
The proportion of young men enrolled in two- or four-year colleges immediately after high school has gradually risen since 1980 to about 60 percent, and the proportion of young men who received a bachelor's degree has hovered at about 25 percent.
Over this same period, young women have entered college in higher proportions. Twenty years ago, about 50 percent of them entered college; today's figure is slightly less than 70 percent. Four-year degree-holders have increased from 21 percent of young women to 29 percent.
So it's not that fewer boys are going to college; it's that more girls are. If education is simply one pie, then boys are getting a smaller share. But they aren't being shut out. Universities and colleges have expanded the number of students they admit, so we're talking about more opportunities for everybody.
One male subgroup, however, does deserve closer attention, and amid all the hype, it isn't getting enough of it: men from lower-income families.
Middle- and upper-income parents send their sons and daughters to college in almost equal proportions (with the exception of well-off African-American families, whose sons still lag considerably behind in the number of years of schooling completed). But that gender balance disappears as family income declines: Men become far less likely than women to go to college, or to stay in school once they get there.
This appears to be true especially for low-income white men, who enter college at even lower rates than low-income blacks or Hispanics.
"The story is about income and race, not gender," says Susan Choy, a consultant to the Department of Education on post-secondary schooling.
Why? Because a young man from a poor family sees less financial advantage than his female counterpart in continuing his schooling, educational authorities say. As soon as he graduates from high school, he can go into a field such as auto repair or construction, which pays, on average, about $33,000 a year -- $10,000 more than the retail or service jobs that most young women can find, according to King.
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