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Beyond “the Gender Divide”

SED’s Joseph Cronin on why men are falling behind

Joseph Cronin, a lecturer in SED's department of administration, training, and policy.

A recent series in the New York Times explored “The New Gender Divide” at colleges and universities, reporting on U.S. Department of Education statistics that show men get lower grades and are less likely to obtain bachelor’s degrees than women. “Men now make up only 42 percent of the nation’s college students,” reporter Tamar Lewin wrote. “And with sex discrimination fading and their job opportunities widening, women are coming on much stronger, often leapfrogging the men to the academic finish.”

Joseph Cronin, a lecturer in the School of Education’s department of administration, training, and policy, and a past president of Bentley College, is the director of the college consulting company Edvisors. He discussed the Times series with BU Today.

What problem does the “gender divide” pose for higher education?

There are different interpretations of what the problems are. The most positive take is that women are going to college, or going back to college, in increasing numbers — men are still going to college, but the percentage of women has moved out in front as more women are going back for degrees and credentials in their 30s and 40s than men. There’s always been a great deal of attrition; it’s that the attrition of women is falling faster than for men. And that’s good.

But there are some problems for men. The biggest gap is between black men and black women: there, the percentage is about 35 percent men attending and completing, and 65 percent women. So there’s a serious need for universities to do even more to reach out and support black males. It’s been there for the past 40 years — [educational outreach programs such as] Upward Bound, the TRIO programs — but they’re not enough.

What other steps do universities need to take?

We’re talking about intervention in the elementary and middle schools, not just keeping students in high school. But on the other hand, it’s very clear that admissions offices can do a lot, in terms of providing information, support, and encouragement. I’m very high on a program that involves higher education and the K–12 system — it’s called Gear Up, it’s a federal program, and it provides both students and parents with a chance to visit colleges; a chance to learn about financial aid.

The critical area is low-income and race, and it requires a major outreach program. Many of these students don’t have anyone they know who’s been to college, so what we need is mentors, professionals, students in college becoming friends, mentors, guides, and sources of inspiration for children who don’t think college is for them, and who don’t think they have a chance.

Do you agree with the Times’ assertion that college-age women now have a better work ethic than men?

I think it’s probably true that women are working harder than men and studying harder than men — I think it’s been true for nearly a century. Men probably feel that college is a chance to be away from home, and women are studying harder, studying more effectively. Men are going to have to get more serious if we’re worried about global competition.

Why do you think this issue draws so much attention?

If you go back to the 1970s, there was the widespread feeling that higher education tilted toward men, that men had more athletic scholarships, more opportunities to become leaders. Really, this is a 30-year success story, that women now have an equal opportunity to play on teams, are staying in school longer, and are getting more degrees. That’s an amazing cultural victory, and in the first 200 years of our country, higher education was for men only, so this is a dramatic turn of events.

But the bad news is we’ve probably been complacent about opportunities for men, and now we should take a look at our policies, our scholarships, our recruitment plans, and our information programs to see if we’re doing everything we can. Clearly, we’re not.