Higher Education: A Key to Avoiding the "End of Men"?

End of GenderThis piece is part of a special series on the End of Gender. This series includes bloggers from HyperVocalRole/RebootGood Men ProjectThe Huffington PostSalonMs. MagazineYourTangoPsychology TodayPrincess Free Zone,The Next Great Generation, and Man-Making.

I grew up in a working-class family that places a high value on education. That’s why I’m immune to the economic, social, and personal turmoil proclaimed by the “End of Men” soothsayers, and that’s how future masculinity can and will evolve rather than “end.”

The soothsayers have a compelling argument. As more females become sole or primary providers (thanks to growth in female-dominated professions in the wake of job losses) they gain social power and gender roles shift. Men appear unwilling or unable to adapt to the new economy, as far more women than men pursue the college degrees necessary for secure, well-paying jobs. This gender imbalance in higher education will reinforce the ongoing changes in our economy, society, and gender roles. As Hanna Rosin writes in her much-debated Atlantic article, “The End of Men,” women not only hold the majority of America’s jobs but also “dominate today’s colleges and professional schools – for every two men who will receive a B.A. this year, three women will do the same.”

However, the gender gap has stabilized. According to the most recent report from the American Council on Education (ACE): “enrollment and undergraduate degrees by gender has remained consistent since about 2000, with men representing 43% of enrollment and earning 43% of bachelor’s degrees.” While a sizeable gender gap remains, the cause is not any natural deficiency in the male species. Rather, the culprit is socio-economic. Across all ages, races, and ethnicities, the pressure on the middle and working class simultaneously pushes women into higher education and men away from it.

Older women in the middle and working class are far more likely than their male counterparts to return to school, partly out of necessity and partly out of a desire to be a role model for their children. “For the men,” the ACE study’s author says, “temporarily cutting back on their earnings [however meager] to go to college was a lot harder.” While mothers believe being a good parent requires being a good educational role model, fathers equate being a good parent with providing for the family. I recently witnessed a conversation between my wife and one of her girlfriends in which they both expressed interest in advanced degrees “just to say they had them.” I’m not surprised that older female students outnumber older male students almost two to one, distorting the overall proportion of male and female students.

Separating the data according to family income reveals another distortion. “Among traditional-age students who are financially dependent on their parents,” the ACE report says, “multiple years of data consistently show that for each racial/ethnic group, the gender gap in enrollment disappears as family income rises.” In other words, the gender gap is present among working-class families, but not higher-income families, regardless of race or ethnicity. In families with limited financial resources, husbands and sons are more likely to value the next paycheck more than the long-term, uncertain rewards of education. Why pay $150 per credit hour at a community college to then hunt for an office job when a $25 an hour construction job awaits? Those blue-collar fathers who value education more than a paycheck are still likely continue earning so that their wives and children can enroll in school instead.

The long-term, idealistic solution would involve providing educational and economic opportunities that eventually reduce income disparities and promote greater access to higher education. The short-term, realistic solution is encouraging the middle and working classes to place a greater value on education. Children from high-income families don’t enroll in college classes only because they have the money to do so. These students and their parents value education for intellectual and personal growth, as well as a gateway to future economic and social success. For the reasons above, children from working-class families, particularly males, are less likely to value higher education over work. They eschew financial aid, scholarships, and paying their way in favor of providing for themselves and their families immediately. While noble in many cases, men should pursue education at any opportunity, and they should certainly instill a love of learning in their children.

Low-income students who do pursue education often lack this value on education, this love of learning. They view college as an annoying requirement rather than a valuable endeavor; they feel school is a hoop to jump through rather than an opportunity to develop crucial knowledge and abilities. As any teacher can attest, there is a world of difference between motivated, engaged students and those who are less so. I most clearly observed this stark contrast when I taught English at both the University of Maryland-College Park and Howard Community College (HCC).

I overheard my brightest students at College Park – a mix of males and females – chatting about their parents’ beach houses. Several of them went to private schools costing annual sums equivalent to a small home. They earned high grades on their essays but turned in extra-credit assignments anyway. More importantly, they engaged class discussions with vigor, taking notes, asking questions, and contributing original ideas. Even the worst students in that class regularly contributed and never failed to submit an assignment or attend class. They clearly understood the value of their educational opportunities and embraced the work necessary to make the most of them.

But at HCC, a significant number of students – virtually all male – dismissed their opportunity to gain an education. Some abruptly stopped attending class and didn’t withdraw despite my warnings that they would fail otherwise. Others didn’t turn in assignments even after I reminded them and offered extensions. I once noticed a young man leaning back in his chair, staring directly at the ceiling, listening to his iPod. I called on him frequently throughout the semester, yet he never caught on to the benefits of paying attention. He never turned in an assignment, but he attended every class. At semester’s end, I gave him his grade and asked him to evaluate his effort. He admitted that he deserved the F.

I still haven’t figured out what he, or many other students, expect will happen when they put forth so little effort, when they think seat-time equates learning. While some students face truly insurmountable obstacles, the majority could overcome their challenges if they valued education the way my students at College Park valued theirs – if they paid attention, studied, and turned in assignments. Socio-economic differences matter, of course, but so do differences in value, motivation, and engagement.

In a nation that offers free libraries, trade schools, cheap community colleges, free Pell grants, and low-interest student loans, every person can afford to attain some form of higher education if he or she wants to. But wanting it, too often, depends on the value one places upon it, which depends on the value one’s parents place upon it. Upper class children like my students at College Park grow up learning the value of education. Though working-class, I grew up hearing, seeing, and experiencing the power of learning; I’ll never forget watching my mother tutor my younger sister when her teacher moved on to the next chapter as though her learning didn’t matter. So, when I encountered challenges in college, I didn’t let them derail my education. I wasn’t satisfied with average grades. I certainly didn’t stare at the ceiling and expect to pass.

If working-class men come to truly value education and instill this value in their children, they can transform the soothsayers’ tale of “The End of Men” into the Evolution of Men. The educational gender gap is the result of socio-economic class and its impact on views of education, not some inherent male educational inferiority. Because my parents taught me to value learning, I attained a Master’s degree and am now working toward a PhD. I haven’t been caught in the demise of construction and manufacturing, but if I had been, I would have continued learning as an investment in my future. I would have evolved with my circumstances. It’s past time that men began re-valuing education and passing that value to the next generation.

Eric Sentell lives in the DC-metro area with his emotionally brilliant wife. He teaches college composition and directs a writing center at Northern Virginia Community College. His short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Rivendell Gazette, Long Story Short, Red Ink Journal, Moon City Review, Unlikely Stories 2.0, Blink Ink Online, Short, Fast, and Deadly, and Six Minute Magazine. In September 2010, Long Story Short selected “Stolen Thunder” as its Story of the Month.

Photo credit litlnemo/Flickr

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