Which Women (and Men) Are You Talking About?May 22, 2008
It’s been gratifying to see much of the dialogue generated by AAUW’s report, Where the Girls Are. I’ve noted, though, that a few persistent questions keep coming up on various Internet comment boards. Let me try to tackle two of them.
Paraphrasing, the first question goes something like this: “If women are earning 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, how can it be possible that more men are graduating from college than ever before?” Not an unreasonable question, but it goes back to looking at the data over time — remember that AAUW’s report looked at more than 35 years’ worth.
The 57 percent figure represents the ratio of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2004–05. That is entirely accurate (see the chart to the right from Where the Girls Are).
The assertion that more men are earning bachelor’s degrees than ever before is also accurate, looking at the real numbers over time. So, in 1974–75, 504,841 men earned bachelor’s degrees. However, in 2004–05, the number of men earning undergraduate degrees increased to 613,000 — higher than at any time since data have been recorded since back in the late 1800s.
On a side note, though, I believe the number of people with college degrees is far too low for both men and women. Only about 29 percent of Americans have college degrees — and that’s not nearly enough to make us competitive in the global economy or to prepare people for 21st-century, technologically oriented jobs. This isn’t just a feel-good, fairness issue — it’s about keeping jobs at home and ensuring innovation and growth in the United States economy. It’s about national defense and homeland security, too.
Another comment that has cropped up a lot is about the fact that there are more women than men on college campuses these days, a story that the media has dwelled on in recent years. Some of the data in the report take that stat and put it in a whole new light. Yes, there are definitely more women on college campuses these days, but here’s an interesting question: which women are you talking about? Among undergraduates coming directly from high school, there is almost no gender gap: most recent statistics show fall 2006 college enrollment rates of 66.0 percent for young women and 65.5 percent for young men. At the undergraduate level, the higher numbers of women on campus can be attributed primarily to the disproportionate enrollment of older women students, who outnumber men by a ratio of almost 2 to 1.
To me, that’s a key point. This influx of women on college campuses represents older women who did not go to college straight out of school, but instead went straight into the workforce. And what did they find? That if they wanted decent-paying jobs with benefits that could support their families and provide decent retirement, they needed a degree. It’s pretty clear that if you go to college, you’re more likely to make a better wage than if you don’t, but the evidence shows that the financial benefits of a college degree are higher for women than men. Some of that likely has to do with college women having the potential for marrying a better-educated man, but the statistics show that women’s earnings take a bigger jump than men’s do when they earn a college degree. I think this is because men have better access to well-paying jobs that do not necessarily require a college education, such as the building trades.
AAUW’s thesis that it’s all about family income still holds true. While a gender gap does not exist overall among these traditionally aged students, family socioeconomic status does affect whether women or men will be more likely to attend college. Women coming from low- and middle-income families are more likely than men to enroll in school; however, among wealthy families (earning $97,500 or more per year), men make up a majority of undergraduate students.