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Friday, December 1, 2023
Dec. 1, 2023

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Jayne: Society changing for young men

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

This past summer, before heading off for his freshman year of college, my 18-year-old son worked for a roofing company. It is hot, grimy, physically demanding work, as you might imagine. It is the kind of hard work that reinforces the dignity of working hard.

Anyway, as my son tells it, at some point his co-workers gave him a hard time about going to college. With the expense and time and effort and potential debt that comes with a college education, some gentle ribbing is understandable. There are drawbacks to attending college.

But there also are benefits. There are things such as gleaning a world view that extends beyond your own silo. And cultivating your intellectual curiosity. And developing skills and knowledge that give you options — in case you don’t want to be a roofer the rest of your life. As I recall from decades ago, when I left for college I thought I knew everything; four years later I knew I never would.

College is not for everybody. Yes, we need public investment to make it more attainable for those who are eager and qualified to go, but you don’t need college to have a fulfilling life. There are countless avenues to success for those willing to explore them.

But I was reminded of my son’s story recently through a slew of articles. As a headline in The Wall Street Journal puts it: “A Generation of American Men Give Up on College.” And The Atlantic: “Colleges have a Guy Problem.” And the New York Times: “Men Fall Behind in College Enrollment.”

It seems that these days women account for 60 percent of college enrollees. In other words, there are three women for every two men, leading to a USA Today headline: “Decline of men on campuses hurts all of America.”

All of this is accompanied by plenty of hand-wringing and armchair sociology — and it should be. As Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic: “The imbalance reveals a genuine shift in how men participate in education, the economy, and society. The world has changed dramatically, but the ideology of masculinity isn’t changing fast enough to keep up.”

Richard Reeves of the centrist Brookings Institution said: “For decades, guys have been less likely to graduate from high school, less likely to enroll in college immediately, and less likely to finish college and earn a diploma. There is a linear educational trajectory for girls and women. Boys and men tend to zigzag their way through adolescence. … I’m struck by the fact that nobody seems to understand why this is happening.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, at the close of the 2020-21 academic year, “U.S. colleges and universities had 1.5 million fewer students compared with five years ago, and men accounted for 71 percent of the decline.”

Indeed, the reasons are varied and the analyses inconclusive; there are no simple answers for vast social changes. And while we should also laud the flip side of the issue — over the years women have come to see education as the path to independence and empowerment — for now the focus is on our young men and why college is not seen as desirable or attainable for many of them.

Some critics decry what they say is a change toward a female-centric society — you know, the “wussification” of America that you’ve heard so much about in conservative media. But that seems to sell boys and men short. Is it really too much to expect them to adjust to a culture in which equality and the concerns of others are paramount? That’s part of an evolving society.

Others claim that the design of modern education does not play to boys’ strengths. “Colleges today want multitaskers, not kids with a singular focus, and boys often do better with a singular focus,” writes Naomi Schaefer Riley of the American Enterprise Institute.

And still others point to a generation of pundits dismissing higher education as the realm of “elites.” As if knowledge was something to be derided.

Regardless of the reasons, there is a distinct gender gap in the very structure of American society. And that can be about as damaging as a leaky roof.

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