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News / Northwest

Fewer men are going to college. What’s behind the national and local trend?

By Paige Van Buren, The Spokesman-Review
Published: September 3, 2023, 6:02am

As new freshmen move into dorms in the coming weeks, with orientations and tear-filled family goodbyes, there will be more women than men on campus.

Men are less likely to enroll in college than women and have been for the last two decades, according to the Pew Research Center.

Only 36% of men ages 25-34 surveyed in 2021 had a college degree, compared to 46% of women.

Area college enrollment numbers follow this trend. At Eastern Washington University in 2022, 56% of the undergraduates were women while 43% were men. Gonzaga University had a similar 55-45% split.

There are myriad reasons why a student may decide not to go to college, according to the Pew Research study, which surveyed more than 9,600 U.S. adults and was weighted to be representative of national demographics. Some potential students can’t afford it, some don’t need it for their career goals and others just don’t want to. Roughly a third of men surveyed gave the latter explanation.

Not forming a post-high school plan before graduation is a common reason Ferris High School college and career counselor Dawn Hilsendeger sees.

“It’s really hard when you’re a teenager to know what you want to do,” Hilsendeger said.

The counselors at Ferris, she said, try to get students to think of it as just their next step after high school. The state requires each student to have a High School and Beyond Plan to graduate.

However, Hilsendeger said the gender split hasn’t struck her as a big issue, despite all the national attention it has garnered.

“In my experience, I don’t see it being a huge deal at Ferris, and I also don’t see it being a wide gap that’s worsening,” she said. “I also see it as male students and female students sometimes just choosing other pathways, because other pathways have been built up and made much more accessible for students.”

Glenn Altschuler, a professor of American Studies at Cornell University, has studied the development of the gender split in college enrollment.

“The gender issue is a complicated issue,” Altschuler said.

Shrinking male enrollment has historically sounded alarms, as women began attending college and were supposedly taking male spots.

“Women enrolling in colleges was deemed to be a problem even when numbers were small,” Altschuler said.

The GI Bill after World War II, Altschuler said, gave men coming home from the war a leg up in the admissions process. Female enrollment dropped considerably because of that change.

Knowing this history, he cautions against tipping the scale of admissions processes to solve the problem of decreasing male college attendance.

“Rather than just admitting more men, we have to take a look at why men aren’t doing as well in public and private schools,” Altschuler said.

Additionally, he said, while women are going to college at higher rates than men, that isn’t translating into equality in the workforce.

“Even though women constitute 59% of undergrad enrollment in colleges, women in many professions are still underrepresented,” Altschuler said. “They aren’t always getting the positions in professions one would expect with those numbers.”

For an example, he mentioned Fortune 500 CEOs. About 10.4% are women, according to Fortune.

Solving the gender split in education, Altschuler said, will take time and considerable resources.

“The schools can’t do it by themselves,” he said. “This is a larger social problem.”

Jens Larson, the vice president for enrollment management at Eastern Washington University, said EWU does not actively recruit one gender over another.

“Spokane institutions do not recruit differentially, especially not by gender,” Larson said. “Most efforts are geared toward meeting economic needs in the community.”

EWU does this by creating more access to programs, such as programs for women in STEM. Larson said he thinks these are what drive changes in enrollment, as well as shifts in preference for majors over time.

However, there has been increased diversification at EWU among fields that typically attract more women than men and vice-versa, Larson said.

“We’re in line with the national trends,” said Maxwell Ndigume Kwenda, Gonzaga University’s registrar and director of institutional research.

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Like EWU, Gonzaga doesn’t discriminate in its recruitment efforts.

“We do reach out to all demographics in trying to improve percentages in terms of who is recruited,” Ndigume Kwenda said.

On the community level, Spokane-area foundation LaunchNW is starting a mentorship program to help students from all backgrounds prepare for post-high school education or training.

Launching this fall, Mpower will connect 200 students from six Spokane high schools with mentors. Fifteen community partners are supporting the program, which falls under the oversight of the Innovia Foundation, said Innovia’s director of research and community impact, Matt Bumpus.

“Launch NW, I think, is best thought of as an initiative that brings organizations together, opens conversations that maybe have been more siloed in the past,” Bumpus said.

Bumpus said he has seen the problem of lower male enrollment in Spokane, but he doesn’t think it’s unique to the area.

“It’s not really a college problem, per se, it’s not really a K-12 problem; it’s an issue for our community as a whole to think about, to reflect on,” Bumpus said. “What are ways that we can be supporting boys and girls towards career pathways, towards post-high school possibilities that really are a good fit for them?”

He echoed Altschuler’s position on looking at more structural solutions rather than just admitting more male students.

“It’s not just a question of, ‘Let’s get colleges to commit more boys,’ “ Butmpus said. “It’s, ‘How do we support everybody with college readiness?’ “

As a guidance counselor, Hilsendeger said she helps students achieve whatever path they choose.

“Really, whatever they want to do, we want them to think about that while they’re in high school so they’re choosing the right courses that prepare them well and that they graduate with a transcript that allows them to access that pathway,” she said. “We like to think that every student is able to go to a four-year university if that’s what they want to do.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Aug. 30, 2023 to correct the spelling of Dawn Hilsendeger’s last name.