Posted by: Gregory Linton | 08/13/2009

Consequences of the Gender Gap in Higher Education

In the last post, I laid out some of the facts concerning the gender gap in higher education, i.e., that women have and will continue to make up a larger and larger proportion of the college population. Now I want to consider why anyone should care about this trend. For it is evident that few people do care. Just imagine if the statistics were reversed–that men made up 58 percent of college students and women 42 percent. There would be mass hysteria–and justifiably so because women would be unfairly disadvantaged in today’s marketplace. But have we heard of any colleges building Men’s Centers to attract more male applicants? Or initiating Men’s Studies programs? Or carrying our affirmative action programs that give preference to male students over female students even though they are less qualified academically? None of this is happening.

So is there a reason to be concerned about this? The American Association of University Women says no. In a 2008 report entitled Where the Girls Are: The Facts about Gender Equity in Education, the authors try to reduce outrage over the demonstrable inequity in education by dismissing the significance of the gap. The first and most important point they make is that “Girls’ successes don’t come at boys’ expense” (p. 2). They argue that the gains of women have not come at the expense of men, which is of course false. At selective colleges and universities, both private and public, there are only so many spots for applicants, and if more women that men are accepted, then the success of women has come at the expense of men. And the consequences of this growing gender gap to our society, families, and economy are disastrous. Let me suggest several reasons why.

1. People without a college education earn $20,000 a year less than people with bachelor’s degrees, according to Crissey (2009) . According to Day and Newburger (2002) , high school graduates will earn an average of $1.2 million (in 1999 dollars), but individuals who have earned a bachelor’s degree will earn $2.1 million, almost twice as much. They also estimate that men with a high school education will make $1.4 million dollars over a lifetime, whereas men with a bachelor’s degree will earn $2.5 million. According to Baum and Ma (2007), “the typical bachelor’s degree recipient can expect to earn about 61 percent over a 40-year working life than the typical high school graduate earns over the same period” (p. 10). They also note that median earnings for men with a bachelor’s degree was 65% higher than men with a high school diploma. These facts also have implications for lost tax revenue by the government.

2. Women with a bachelor’s degree make almost $19,000 less a year than men with a bachelor’s degree, according to Crissey (2009). Generally, women make about two-thirds of what men make at all levels of education. One reason that women tend to be lower wage earners than men is that lower-paying careers, such as nursing and teaching, tend to attract them, whereas higher-paying fields in science and technology tend to attract men more than women.

3. Among the employed, 32.5% have bachelor’s degrees; among the unemployed, only 17.8% have bachelor’s degrees, according to Stoops (2004). This suggests that there is a higher rate of unemployment among males without a college degree than among those with a college degree (Baum & Ma, 2007). Although I do not have time to research the statistics to back up these speculations, I suspect that unemployment correlates with higher rates of suicide, alcoholism and drug abuse, and incarceration.

4. Families whose head lacks a college degree have higher rates of poverty than families that do. According to a report by the Workforce Solutions Group and the Center for Labor Market Studies, less than 2% of Massachusetts families headed by a person with a bachelor’s degree or higher were poor. By contrast, 8% families whose head had only a high school diploma were poor, and 17% of families whose head had not earned a high school diploma were poor. Baum and Ma (2007) report similar nationwide statistics: the poverty rate for households whose head has a bachelor’s degree is 3.6%, but it is 23.8% for those who do not have a high school diploma and 10.8% for those who have only a high school diploma.

5. Very few individuals with a college degree are incarcerated. According to Harlow (2003) , 12.7% of the prison population had some postsecondary experience compared to 48.4% of the general population. Only 2-3% of the prison population had college degrees, whereas 22% of the general population has a college degree. In fact, 68% of the prison population did not have even a high school diploma. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in mid-2008, there were 1.5 million men in prison and only 115,000 women. If more men completed high school and college, the prison population would decrease accordingly.

6. America lags behind other countries in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) because these are male-dominated fields and American men are not going to college in the numbers that they are in other countries. According to Baum and Ma (2007), only 11% of 24-year-olds in America have university degrees in science or engineering, which is lower than Japan, Taiwan, France, South Korea, U.K., Israel, and Canada. Only 32% of first university degrees awarded were in science or engineering, which is lower than more than 15 other countries and is only slightly better than Mexico. The concern about the lack of American students graduates in these essential fields has led to a number of initiatives to increase the numbers. A simple way to increase the numbers in these fields is to increase the number of men who go to college.

7. A large percentage of college-educated women will leave the workforce. According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, 40% of women voluntarily leave the workforce at some point, a phenomenon she terms “off-ramping.” However, she did find that the average length of hiatus was 2.2 years. Almost half of the women who leave the workforce do so to spend more time with their children. I have not been able to see how this percentage breaks out by educational level; however, I suspect her research focused largely on professional women. Even if the average length of dropout was two years, there is still some cause for concern about the impact on American businesses and the economy as a whole.

8. Since there will be hundreds of thousands more women with college degrees than men, larger numbers of women will find it difficult to find an appealing mate. Educational inequity can cause problems in marriage because a college education also makes an impact on the values and perspectives of an individual. Individuals with a bachelor’s degree tend to be more likely to vote, do volunteer work, use computers, attend art and cultural activities, buy and read books, and be politically active. They also tend to “become more open-minded, more cultured, more rational, more consistent and less authoritarian” (Porter, 2002). Women who have developed these characteristics will find uneducated men who have not developed them unappealing, and vice versa.

In the next post, I will describe some of the possible causes of the gender gap in higher education.


Baum, S., & Ma, C. (2007). Education pays 2007: The benefits of higher education for individuals and society. Trends in Higher Education Series.Washington, DC: The College Board.

Crissey, S. R. (2009, January). Educational attainment in the United States: 2007. Current Population Reports P20-560. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau.

Day, J. C., & Newburger, E. C. (2002). The big payoff: Educational attainment and synthetic estimates of work-life earnings. Current Population Reports, Special Studies, P23-210. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau.

Harlow, C. W. (2003, January). Education and correctional populations. NCJ 195670. Washington, DC: The Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Porter, K. (2002). The value of a college degree. ED470038. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education.

Stoops, N. (2004, June). Educational attainment in the United States: 2003. Current Population Reports, P20-550. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Census Bureau.


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