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No secret behind male enrollment declines

Last week, BridgeMI published a little piece about the gender gap among Michigan’s colleges and universities. This gap – the difference between male and female enrollment – is present at almost all colleges and universities, with a higher number of women enrolling in post-secondary programs than men. It’s been an observed phenomenon for years.

It’s really not hard to figure out what is going on. Male enrollment declines for the same reason female enrollment rises: money. Employment data show that male workers tend to make more than females do, even when the numbers are adjusted for all of the possible variables. Men make more money.

For the most part, colleges and universities compete against the economy. When the economy is good, there’s a path forward even without a college degree. Men who might otherwise have gone to college go into the workforce instead. The cost-benefit analysis plays an important role in the decision to go to college or go to work.

University degrees are expensive, which makes them inherently risky. A degree that doesn’t pay off can saddle the graduate with tens (or sometimes hundreds) of thousands of dollars of debt. Educational debt, which is generally not dischargeable in bankruptcy, can prevent graduates from buying houses and cars, getting married, and having children. The sheer size and inescapability of student loan debt likely plays a role in the decision to avoid college. Men can do better by going into the workforce. They may not earn as much as they might have if they had earned a college degree, but they also won’t contend with decades of debt repayment, followed by additional years of trying to catch up financially.

Continued female enrollment is a pragmatic decision

Women turn to a college education for the exact same reason that men shy away from one. They need a proven strategy to counteract the lower lifetime earnings they face. Even with a college degree, women will earn less than their male counterparts performing the same or similar work, but at least they’ll earn more than they would have if they had not gone to college.

With fewer men in post-secondary programs, women will begin to move into leadership and managerial roles. This will enable them to increase their earnings while in the workforce. Women may need these significant salary increases, especially if they have children at some point during their prime working years.

Women are enrolling in larger numbers in colleges and universities because they’re still willing to take on the risk of debt. Realistically, they don’t have much choice. Higher earnings offer the potential for a higher standard of living and financial independence. College-educated women don’t need to rely on the earnings of their partner to live comfortably in the middle class. A greater degree of financial independence also means that women can leave a potentially dangerous domestic relationship, should that become necessary.

If community college (in particular) offered program with high earnings potential, men would fill every available seat.

Enrollment variations are really, really, really all about the money.

Photo Credit: Bill Lapp, via Flickr