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Storming the Gates

Women's attendance skyrockets at college, male numbers leveling off



Faced with the prospects of making less wages than a man -- or making about the same amount of money with a college degree that men can make without one -- women are beating a path to college campuses in record numbers.

The number of women in college has shot up, and there are also more men going to college today than at any other time in history.

But the ratio of male to female college-goers has leveled off, and with colleges reporting an average of 56:44 female-to-male ratios, women have edged out men to attain the majority population on many campuses.

The numbers differ dramatically from 1960, when 54 percent of males who graduated high school went on to college. Now, 64 percent of men attend college.

By contrast, only 30 percent of female high-school graduates attended college four decades ago. That was the year oral contraceptives were first approved by the Federal Drug Administration, the United States launched its first weather satellite and the first televised presidential debates, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, aired.

Forty-one years later, 70 percent of female high school graduates go on to college.

Lynda Dickson, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, noted that women these days often run their own households and raise their children by themselves -- making the need for decent wages more important to women than it ever has been in the past.

Women, it appears, are holding out for more than a refund check from George W. Bush once they graduate.

Across the country, females -- who generally cannot expect to earn close to the same amount as men if they don't go to college -- compose larger percentages of the student population than their male counterparts.

At UCCS, the percentage of female college students is even higher -- 59 percent -- than the national average. Tom Hutton, who works in the school's Office of Institutional Research, credits the high number in part to the school's Bethel College of Nursing and its teacher education program, areas that traditionally attract more women.

The overall increase in college-bound females is cause for many to celebrate a growing economic freedom for women, who are also increasingly putting off, sometimes permanently, marriage or children.

The rude awakening

But some warn of problems if the number of women in college continues to grow as quickly as it has.

"If these college-educated women think they will find college-educated men to marry, they are in for a rude awakening," said Thomas Mortenson, a higher education policy analyst for the Iowa-based Center for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

Dickson, who is currently writing a paper on the increased feminization of students, staff and faculty in higher education, said she has noticed more women in her classes saying it should be OK if women don't want to marry, or if they want to raise a child on their own.

"There is this expectation that you don't want to marry someone below you," said Dickson. "I tell them," she said, "that's true ... if it's a choice. But, I talk about this with my daughter all the time. For large pools of black women, there is not an option."

Dickson said the trends are exaggerated in the African-American community, where 68 percent of college students are women. "Black women have been marrying less educated men for decades," she said.

Access, finally

Pamela Haag of the Washington, D.C.--based American Association of University Women -- which promotes education and equity for women -- says the biggest turning point in spurring more women on to college was the federal Title IX legislation passed in 1972.

The law -- a result of a battle by women for equality in higher education -- requires that both genders be treated equally in every educational program that receives federal funds.

"Getting access to education is immensely important," Haag said. "The most elite schools in the nation were finally open to women."

In addition, the disparity of wages between genders is still broad, making college appealing to a greater percentage of women, but not necessarily to men.

"It's easier for a man to get into air conditioning maintenance, where the starting salary is about $30,000 a year, or to join the military, than it is for a woman," Dickson said. "When the options are cleaning people's houses or emptying bed pans, college looks more appealing.

"It's not that there are fewer men going to college," she emphasized, "it's just that there are more women going."

Men left behind?

Mortenson, who researches and analyzes opportunities in post-secondary education, disagrees. He believes men are at an educational disadvantage in a changing economy.

Men, he said, did very well when the United States operated in the pre-World War II goods-producing economy (manufacturing and farming) because the work was more labor intensive.

But since the war, the United States has shifted to a service economy, where women excel because they tend to have better communications skills, he said.

"We don't need men who can plant crops in the spring and harvest crops in the fall anymore," Mortenson said. "We don't need men to work in manufacturing plants anymore. That's not what Americans do now."

He says those problems, along with boys' generally poorer performance in high school, are the expression of another, deeper problem: More boys are growing up in a world with absentee fathers and no strong male role models, which leaves them falling behind.

"This problem goes far beyond college enrollment numbers," he said.

However, Haag insists that males have far more viable alternatives to college in today's economy than do women.

"There are real economic changes that young men may not be aware of," she said. "Long term these men may be very badly served by not having a college degree, but they may not be thinking of that when they are 18."

Dickson admits, "When I first got into this, I thought, my God, what is happening to the men? Are they all in prison?" However, her observations have convinced her that "that is not the case at all. Men are just doing other things."

Haag pointed out that men still make more money, hold the most powerful leadership positions, and they still hold the majority attendance rates at America's most elite universities.

However, she believes women's overall majority -- which constitute higher numbers at state-run colleges -- is a step in the right direction.

"It's really positive for women individually, because they are taking on more challenging professions and are, perhaps, better able to support themselves," she said.

UCCS student Jessica Knutson said she notices that women speak up more in classes where there are more of them.

"[Women] are feeling more comfortable," Knutson said. "They have more confidence in their opinions. I mean ... it's more comfortable for me."

Gaining power, losing it

Women's presence is not only growing in undergraduate institutions, but in graduate and professional schools as well. Not only do they constitute a majority in law schools, they are head to head with men in medical schools.

And, as a result of women being more educated, they are climbing into more seats of power.

In particular, Dickson said, women have made strong gains in the academic world. There are more female university presidents today than ever before, more tenure-track professors and more administrators.

But, as women assume more powerful positions in academia, those power positions diminish in a broader perspective.

"Being the president of a major university used to be a big deal," Dickson said. "The presidents of the United States would invite university presidents to the White House. They used to be the pillars of their communities. Recently they have moved behind the scenes."

Dickson does not suggest the power of the university president is diminished because women are starting to occupy the offices. But she suggests that, as the seats of power shift, men shift with them, leaving women to occupy the less glamorous power positions.

Recruiting more men

Mortenson, meanwhile, believes that boys do not learn the same way as girls, and the education system needs to change its approach.

"Sitting down quietly, reading and listening is not a learning style for boys," Mortenson said. "We need hands-on, experiential learning."

Although Mortenson does not go so far as to support college-level affirmative action programs directed to attract more men, he suggests some universities are not comfortable with their female majorities. Some schools have started new sports teams to attract men, for example.

"A lot of colleges are recruiting more actively, trying to get men to come to their schools. Or they are putting their thumbs on the scale when weighing the men against the women," he said.

Haag condemns the thought of tipping the scales for men. "There's not a historical legacy of men being denied access to higher education, so the premise of affirmative action for men is silly," she said.

The male holdouts

As most college campuses are burgeoning with women, military academies and many technical schools -- which have been historically male dominated -- are still overwhelmingly male.

At Colorado Technical University, the city's largest private technical training school, men outnumber women nearly 3-to-1. However, over the past five years the number of female students at the technical college has doubled, from 18 percent to 36 percent female.

Bill Sommers, admissions director at the college, said the school's marketing department has not targeted women, nor has it developed any new programs in the interest of attracting more women to the school. He credits the profound growth of the female student body to the recent popularization and profitability of the technology industry.

"If more women are coming, it's really because they see a place for themselves in the industry," Sommers said.

Dickson also believes that more women are moving into the technology field because they smell opportunity.

"I think it's just a case where more young women are saying, I want to make some money. And [technology] is a field where they know they can make a living," Dickson said.

But at the Air Force Academy, which trains military officers, tradition is still firmly steeped in male culture. Since it opened in 1976, the number of women cadets has increased -- from about 7 percent to 15 percent. This year's entering class is 18 percent female, a number similar to those at the U.S. academies that train Navy, Army and Coast Guard officers.

Rollie Stoneman, director of selections at the Air Force Academy, said he has no explanation for the dearth of female cadets -- and that the Academy doesn't actively recruit women applicants.

"We really don't have any programs or materials targeted specifically at women," Stoneman said.

"The Academy is a pretty specialized place, and it leads to a military career. We're looking for people who are interested in a military career, and people who can perform in those fields. It doesn't really matter whether they are women or men."

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