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The Growing Gender Divide in Higher Education

Hans Johnson October 4, 2016

In California and across the nation, women have surpassed men in educational attainment. In 2006, for the first time ever, a majority of college graduates in the state were women. By 2014, 52% of California adults ages 18 to 64 with at least a bachelor’s degree were women, up from 45% in 1990. This gender divide in educational attainment is likely to continue to grow because the disparity is especially notable among younger adults: in 2014, 718,000 (55%) of California’s college graduates under 30 were women, compared to only 588,000 men.

Why are women now more likely to earn a college degree than men? The most direct and obvious answer is that women are more likely to be prepared for college, and thus more likely to enroll in college and graduate from college once enrolled. For example, among high school graduates in California, women are more likely to have completed the courses required for admission to the University of California and California State University. In 2014–15, almost half (49%) of female high school graduates completed these college preparatory courses, compared to only 38% of their male peers. This gap has grown since 2004–05, when 39% of female and 31% of male high school graduates completed these college preparatory courses.

Better academic preparation among women leads to higher college enrollment and graduation rates. According to US Department of Education data, 55% of all undergraduates enrolled in California’s colleges and universities in 2014 were women. And once enrolled, women are more likely to graduate. Six-year bachelor’s degree completion rates in the state were 61% for women and 57% percent for men.

The strong progress that women have made in higher education is good news. Yet inequities remain. Female college graduates earn less than their male peers. Women also have lower rates of employment than men. Policies that promote pay equity, flexible work schedules, and parental leave may help address these issues.

Women are especially underrepresented in important fields such as computer science and engineering—as are African American and Latino men. For California to meet the challenges of the 21st century economy, we need even more women and men—including those from groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education—to earn a college degree.

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