Throughout the country, prospective college students have recently made decisions about where they intend to go to school. Increasingly, these students are more likely to be women than men. In California, 56% of undergraduates at the state’s public universities and community colleges are women, as are 54% of undergraduates at nonprofit colleges and 63% at for-profit colleges. The growing college gender gap has far-reaching consequences for young men’s economic prospects, especially for those from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups.
Based on current rates of enrollment and graduation, 36% of women in California will earn a bachelor’s degree by the time they are in their early to mid-20s, compared to only 24% of men. This imbalance is the consequence of gender differences that start well before college. Along every step of the pathway from 9th grade to college completion, women fare better than men. Women are more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in college, transfer from a community college to a four-year college, and complete college once enrolled.
There are multiple factors that can explain gender differences in college completion. As seen above, the most direct explanation is that gender gaps emerge well before college. Female students have stronger high school records and are more likely to be prepared for college than male students since female students enroll in and complete more college-preparatory courses. Other recent studies find that gender differences can start as early as grade school, with male students falling behind in English and math test scores in grades 3–8. This could lead to boys dropping out of the school system early.
Differences in the college gender gap also vary across racial/ethnic groups. Latina and Black women ages 22–26 are almost twice as likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree as men of the same race/ethnicity, whereas white women are only 1.2 times as likely as white men to have a four-year degree. However, Latina and Black women are still much less likely than Asian and white women and men to hold a bachelor’s degree. Furthermore, fewer than one in six young Black and Latino men have a four-year degree.
Students’ socioeconomic status can also affect school outcomes differentially for male versus female students, further contributing to the gender gap in higher education. These differences have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which triggered startling enrollment declines in postsecondary education; men of color were one of the most affected groups, particularly in community colleges, where they were already less likely to enroll and succeed.
The implications of the growing educational attainment gap for young men are significant, considering the strong correlation between college completion, positive labor market outcomes, and economic mobility. To improve college attainment among men, interventions should begin early. Policies to expand early education, reduce child poverty, boost high school graduation rates, and increase college recruitment all have a role to play. And although women are more likely to graduate from college, men still dominate in fields like technology and engineering, which offer some of the highest salaries for recent graduates. Addressing both of these issues—the degree attainment gap that favors women and the pay gap that favors men—is imperative for our economy to thrive.