Some colleges are practicing ‘affirmative action’ for boys, since more girls apply, education experts say. It points to a bigger problem.

Boys college enrollment
Togi, an 11th grade student at Wakefield High School, sits at his desk in Arlington, Virginia, on June 3, 2021. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Researchers have been sorting out a paradox for decades: If US employers favor men with a college degree, why is that demographic shrinking?

New data from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit research group, suggests that the gender gap in higher education is the highest it’s ever been: Men made up just 40% of college students during the 2020-21 school year, while women made up around 60%. Men also accounted for more than 70% of the decline in students at US colleges and universities over the last five years.

In an attempt to keep the gender ratio somewhat even in their student bodies, some private colleges are now accepting a higher portion of their male applicants than their female ones, the Wall Street Journal recently reported.

On average, boys tend to have lower GPAs.

“That overall lower achievement is what ends up hurting boys in the admissions process,” Jayanti Owens, a sociology professor at Brown University, told Insider. “Some universities have really started to systematically recognize this and, in an effort to not have tremendous gender imbalances in their student body, are practicing affirmative action of sorts for boys.”

The reasons for this admissions discrepancy are manifold, but education researchers cite two factors in particular. First, the US education system prioritizes rule-following and organization over active learning, and second, there’s a shortage of male teachers and college counselors – particularly men of color. Neither of those factors is new, but changes in the labor market over the last four decades have given them new significance.

Before 1970, many working women had jobs that didn’t require a college degree, such as clerical or sales work. Starting in the 70s, though, the labor market began allowing women to enter a broader range of professions that required more education. As women became more incentivized to pursue college, more girls applied.

That incentive to get a higher degree – combined with the way schools are set up – has led girls to surpass their male peers. A gender gap in college enrollment has persisted since the 1980s.

Now, Owens said, many boys face a “cumulative disadvantage” in school.

“It starts early and it gets bigger,” she said. “And by the time you get to applying for college, it’s very large.”

Girls’ rule-following skills may give them an early edge

Kids in masks returning to school
Third grade dual language students wear masks on the first day of school at Montara Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, California, on Monday, August 16, 2021. Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Boys who don’t easily acclimate to classroom norms may struggle to see themselves as college-bound.

A 2011 study found that girls start school with more advanced social and behavioral skills, whereas boys are more likely to have difficulty paying attention or sitting still in class. Preschool-aged boys are four times more likely to be expelled than girls, according to the National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness.

Owens’ research has shown that behavioral challenges seen as early as ages four and five can be significant predictors of whether boys will drop out of high school or decide not to go to college.

One reason boys may be seen as misbehaving, she said, is that the early education system prioritizes rule-following and self control.

“You really need to have high levels of self-regulation and self-control to be able to sit there and pay attention for that long,” Owens said. “So part of it is that girls are more able to do that, on average, and part of it is that you can have teachers respond to boys who are not doing that as troublemakers or naughty. That can lead to sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby boys that get this message end up acting out more, in part because they don’t have the attention skills, and in part because they’re rebelling against this idea that they’re not good at school.”

Studies indicate that teachers often rate boys as having more behavioral problems than girls. What’s more, Owens said, boys often score lower on linguistic and reading tests than girls – a discrepancy that persists from kindergarten through high school.

It’s not clear why these academic and behavioral differences exist. Cultural and social conditioning likely have an influence. Young children may be raised to view reading and language as feminine subjects, for example. A 2011 study found that parents are more likely to read to girls than boys, and more likely to spank boys than girls.

Challenges in school may also discourage boys from seeking academic help. A study of 3rd-grade public-school students found that kids who received negative feedback from teachers or didn’t see themselves as good students were more fearful of seeking help than their peers.

“Building in a culture of asking for help, and normalizing that from a very young age, can be transformative for students – especially for low-income boys or just boys in general,” Adrian Huerta, an assistant education professor at the University of Southern California, told Insider.

High-school boys ‘find out too late’ how to prepare for college

Boys college enrollment
Deborah Sewell, who teaches a non-credited reading class at Montgomery College, answers Isaiah Rodriguez’s questions during class in Takoma Park, Maryland, on February 12, 2020. Katherine Frey/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Boys tend to score higher than girls on standardized science and math tests in high school. But those subject-specific advantages, whatever their cause, “don’t translate into overall advantages in educational attainment,” Owens said.

Instead, research has found that 8th-grade girls are more self-disciplined than their male counterparts – qualities that factor into their grades. Girls at all age levels also demonstrate higher levels of engagement in class. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely than girls to get suspended in K-12 public schools – and kids from schools with high suspension rates were less likely to earn a college degree, a 2019 study found.

“You are marked as a bad kid, and that means teachers and counselors are less likely to have patience for you and less likely to present you unique opportunities related to college-going,” Huerta said, adding, “often boys find out too late what they need to do in order to prepare for college – they might find out their junior or senior years that you need to take these classes, you need to take these tests.”

The pandemic has made these trends more pronounced.

“We’re seeing this gender disparity in higher education exacerbated, where there’s fewer and fewer boys in higher education as a result of the pandemic,” Owens said.

Financial strains may compel young men to enter the workforce right away

High school students wear mask while walking into school.
Students at a Florida high school walk to campus on their first day of school on August 23, 2021. AP Photo/Marta Lavandier

Some young men face an additional deterrent to enrolling in college: the need to support themselves or their families.

An analysis from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, reported in the Wall Street Journal, found that boys from low-income backgrounds were the least likely of any demographic group to enroll in college in 2019. COVID-19 has exacerbated financial woes for many families, creating a heightened pressure to enter the workforce.

“Financial strains cause young men to say, ‘College is really expensive. Who’s going to pay for it? Who’s going to pay for my books? Who’s going to pay for my car?'” Huerta said.

For these boys, Owens added, it’s often easier to follow a path that’s been laid out for them already.

“If you’re a boy coming from a low-income family, you might have role models around you who have gone into the trades or who have gone into other non-professional occupations,” she said. “That’s the example you have in front of you.”

More male teachers and active learning techniques could be part of the solution

Kindergarten
Kindergarten teacher Mary Hoftiezer and the class fly like airplanes during a story break at Fairview Elementary in Denver, Colorado, on January 23, 2019. Joe Amon/The Denver Post/Getty Images

The US education system is notoriously underfunded – but, at the moment, US school districts collectively have access to billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funds.

“Right now is a critical time in our national history,” Huerta said. “How are we going to use those dollars?”

In an ideal world, he said, every US school would have two or three college counselors – including men of color. The current national ratio is one college counselor for every 424 students.

Owens, meanwhile, is pushing for funds to go toward early education. She’d like to see preschools and kindergartens incorporate more active, hands-on projects and fewer quiet lectures. Recruiting more male teachers at that level is also critical, she added.

“I would really invest in changing the structure of schooling,” Owens said. “So you are both setting boys up to have higher levels of the skills that get rewarded in schools, and simultaneously changing the structure of schools to make them more friendly to boys.”