n this file photo from Aug. 25, 2020, students Jessica DeSena, right, and Camden Coggburn, left, both from Columbus, sit outside Thompson Library during the first day of fall classes at Ohio State.
( Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch via AP, File
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway. The gender gap in higher education is nothing new and it's grown more intense since the onset of the pandemic. Data show it's particularly pervasive for men of color. Kelly Field is a freelance journalist who's been covering education for 20 years. She recently wrote about this gender gap for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Kelly Field: We've been seeing women outnumber men in higher education for a number of years, and the gap has been growing steadily larger, but we saw an acceleration of that trend during the pandemic. The male undergraduate enrollment fell by 7%, which was nearly three times as much as female enrollment. That decline was the steepest and the gender gap was the largest among students of color who are attending community colleges.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's break down those two aspects for men of color, and then also men in community colleges who also tend to be men of color, but start with the men of color. Why the steepest declines there as opposed to with young white men?
Kelly Field: It's partly because of the disproportionate impact that the pandemic had on communities of color. People were more likely to have lost their jobs or have become sick, and that influenced their decisions about enrolling in college. Either hesitancy about being in school during the pandemic or feeling that they needed to work because a family member might've lost a job.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We know that men may have that higher earning potential, but isn't it also the case, and I guess this was part of what surprised me about the findings that women often have compounding domestic responsibilities, and it seems to me that in the context of the pandemic, I would have suspected that it was women who we were going to lose relative to college enrollment.
Kelly Field: Yes. You would have thought so, but I think the fact that a lot of colleges or nearly all colleges went online and a lot of women were staying home to help their kids with school may have enabled them to do their own schoolwork alongside their children.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Right. Because now you weren't having to leave them and go to a place.
Kelly Field: Right, exactly.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now talk about community colleges, how is this different than four years?
Kelly Field: Across the board, community colleges saw the steepest decline in enrollment, but as I mentioned before, it was steepest among Black and Hispanic men. Their enrollment plummeted by almost 20% for Black men and 16.6% for Hispanic men, which was about 10 percentage points more than the drops in Black and Hispanic female enrollment. We saw smaller drops in enrollment of Asian men, but they were still about eight times the size of the drops for Asian women.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Here's what makes me nervous. I feel like I've been doing work as an intersectional Black feminist for years now to draw attention to the ways that for example, Black girls and Black women have very specific vulnerabilities within systems, have been trying to push and advocate for programs addressing girls and women, but these numbers are also very convincing about the fact that we probably also need some that are directly impacting men and men of color. How do we balance that?
Kelly Field: Colleges have been creating programs for women for a number of years, but there's not nearly as many programs for men. In recent years, we've seen some growth in that area, but there's still-- it can be a tough sell for colleges because of this perception that men have a lot of advantages in our society. They tend to out-earn women, for example. Convincing administrators to create these programs can be challenging, but there's roughly 100 programs according to one estimate for men on college campuses, which is far outnumbered by the number of programs for women and the majority of these tend to be geared towards men of color.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What does a program look like? What does it mean to say we have a program to try to attract or retain men on our campus?
Kelly Field: These programs offer different things. A lot of times they offer fellowship a sense of community for students who-- there's a lot of research that suggests that men of color often feel alienated from college and that their sense of not belonging has been deepened by the pandemic and the racial unrest that we've experienced in this country. To some degree, they focus on creating a sense of community belonging.
They often talk about challenging conventional stereotypes about manhood, and then they often provide academic supports, financial supports, and sometimes as a case management approach of helping students work through the barriers that forced them to drop out, it can be anything from a broken-down car to a missed rent payment, that sort of thing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm also wondering about the non higher ed aspects of this. When you say, for example, that Black men have the steepest decline, I'm wondering, for example about the effects of incarceration, and not just the effects of incarceration in that moment, but the fact that it remains true that you can't get federal student loans after certain kinds of incarcerations. I'm wondering if there's also broader policies outside of the higher ed landscape that need to happen in order to address what's going on in these classrooms.
Kelly Field: Yes. There needs to be policy changes in employment in terms of making it easier for men to get jobs once they're released from prison if they get an education. There has been a lot of movement in making Pell Grants eligible to men in prison so that they can advance their education when they're incarcerated.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering also about the cost of college in general. The numbers you were looking at are enrollment numbers, I'm wondering if we also know something about retention and if part of what's going on here is that we may be losing men on the retention end as well.
Kelly Field: Retention is a big issue. In the context of the pandemic, there's not really a clear understanding of why men dropped out more, but some of it is believed to be because of this need to work during the pandemic. Some of it is also because the programs that tend to attract more men than women didn't necessarily translate well to online, especially at the community college level like really hands-on technical programs, they didn't really work in an online environment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Just so that we lay this out, what difference does it make? If boys can't meet the same standards as girls in K through 12, and we have fewer men on campus, who cares, why does it matter?
Kelly Field: It matters a lot. It matters to the individuals who are going to lose out on a lot of lifetime earnings. I think the social security administration said that men with college degrees make close to a million more in lifetime earnings than those without and matters for the colleges who are going to have less revenue and they're already seeing enrollment declines in many parts of the country due to changing demographics. It means less viewpoint diversity for them as well. Then broadly for the economy, it's fewer workers to fill an increasing number of jobs that require at least some college education, if not in a degree, like a certificate or a diploma of some kind.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In so many ways, I'm not surprised at the groups who were most impacted here, but there was one counterintuitive hypothesis I had, which I thought, "Oh, maybe we will still see a steeper decline among white men." My counter-intuitive hypothesis here was that we've had a significant pushback against higher ed from the conservative right. The sense that higher ed is this ultra-liberal space where people aren't learning real skills, they're just sitting around twiddling their thumbs and being policed in terms of their identities and their ideologies, and yet that doesn't seem to be who we're losing here in these classrooms. Is there any reason to think that the more conservative discourse about the irrelevance of higher ed is having any kind of impact?
Kelly Field: For sure. I think across races, there's this continuing and growing question of is college worth it and also the concerns that it's elitist or that it's training for the left. We do see, and we have for a while, fewer men from rural areas enrolling in college and there's been a real effort to try to get more of them in. I think with community colleges, those tend to be more vocationally oriented. There's probably less of that perception that it's a bastion of leadism or liberalism than there would be at some of the four-year colleges.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Absolutely. Kelly Field is a freelance journalist who's been covering education for 20 years. Kelly, thank you so much for joining us.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.