In a recent ranking of the states on women’s equality, Maine garnered high marks for a relatively small gender gap when it comes to college degree attainment. But these high marks are misleading: The education gap in Maine is small because too few men have college degrees.
WalletHub, which ranks states based on many different sorts of data, ranked Maine sixth in the country for gender equality based on three measures: workplace environment, education and political representation. The education ranking included two subcategories: the percentage of residents over age 25 with a bachelor’s degree or higher and math scores.
Maine tied for first with Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota and Vermont for the smallest gap between the percentage of men and women with bachelor’s degrees or higher (these states’ gaps were actually negative, because more women than men have degrees). All of these states boast percentages of college-educated women that beat the national average of 28.7 percent, according to 2013 census data, which WalletHub used for its comparisons. But in three of these states — Maine, Alaska and North Dakota — a below-average percentage of men have bachelor’s degrees. In Maine, 26.9 percent of men over 25 have bachelor’s degrees, compared with 29 percent of women. In 2013, the national average for men was 29 percent.
Rather than celebrate these data, they should instead serve as a wake-up call to policymakers and educators. While women are surging ahead in higher education, men have lost a dangerous amount of ground that could leave many without the tools they need to compete in an increasingly skill-dependent economy.
The conventional wisdom is that many Maine men traditionally felt they didn’t need college degrees because they could graduate from high school and get a job at the local mill. But this logic doesn’t hold when the data are broken down by age cohort. Men age 65 and over are actually the most likely to hold a bachelor’s degree; 28.8 percent of them do. The percentage drops for each 10-year age interval; just 26 percent of men ages 25 to 34 hold bachelor’s degrees.
The opposite is true for women. Thirty-five percent of 25- to 34-year-old women have a bachelor’s degree compared with only 19.7 percent of Maine women over 65.
The nation has poured significant effort into boosting women’s educational attainment, and it’s worked. In the fall of 2013, nearly 57 percent of college students were female, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, compared with 41 percent In 1970. In the University of Maine System, 59 percent of students are female.
The number of men in college grew substantially for decades but peaked in 2010 at about 9 million. The number of women in college, meanwhile, has continued to grow. It reached 11.5 million in 2013.
And the women who start college are more likely than their male counterparts to finish. Nationwide, 63.8 percent of female students who started college in the fall of 2004 graduated within six years, compared with 55.5 percent of male students.
So, why are fewer young men enrolling in college and graduating?
The reasons range from the “lure of a good job” after high school to fewer scholarship opportunities specifically for men to a lack of wars with drafts to avoid, according to James Shelley, director of the Men’s Resource Center at Lakeland Community College in Ohio, who wrote a top 10 list of the reasons men aren’t going to college. Two reasons, however, are rooted in boys’ experience early in their school careers, and they require attention.
First is what Shelley calls the “cleansing of ‘boy behavior’ in kindergarten through 12th grades.” Many schools have cut recess time yet require that young students sit still and be quiet despite research that shows boys learn better when they are allowed to move around. As a result, boys are more likely to be suspended and expelled, they are more likely to be held back a grade, and they’re more likely to drop out of high school.
Second is a persistent gender gap in reading scores. In 2013, 30 percent of Maine’s eighth-grade boys were proficient in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress compared with 46 percent of girls.
Yet there is little focus in schools on specific programs to help boys improve their reading and writing. When it became clear that girls were trailing boys in math and science, schools made curriculum changes and special programs emerged to encourage girls to pursue math- and science-related career paths. The gap has since shrunk.
The consequences of the gender gap stretch beyond campus boundaries. Employment and labor force participation among young and middle-age men — those ages 25 to 54 — reached all-time lows in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over a 40-year career, the typical worker with a bachelor’s degree will earn 66 percent more than the typical high school graduate, according to the College Board. The gap widens with additional education.
Maine and the country have succeeded in getting more women to attend and complete college. Now, policymakers and educators should pay similar attention to men, with a focus on improving boys’ education from their first days in school.