‘Hope deficit’ and economic demands among college-aged men: Why more are choosing to skip higher ed

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

In the last school year, men made up about 40% of college students, and if the education gap keeps widening, two women will earn a college degree for every one man, according to estimates from the National Student Clearinghouse, a research nonprofit. Photo by Shutterstock.

You pretty much need a college degree if you want to earn a middle-class salary in the U.S. now. And yet, more men are choosing to skip college. The education gap between men and women has grown for decades, but reached its widest point in the last school year, when men made up about 40% of college students. If this trend continues, two women will earn a college degree for every one man, according to estimates from the National Student Clearinghouse, a research nonprofit. 

Wall Street Journal higher education reporter Douglas Belkin explains, “During the pandemic, I think a lot of that was connected to guys dropping out to work. A lot of women lost jobs, stayed home to take care of kids. And a lot of guys who were in school dropped out of school to step in and help their parents, help their families [and] their sisters.” 

Belkin points out that declines have been particularly big among Black and Latino men in community colleges, whereas rates have not dropped among Asian men, and Asian men and women attend college at almost identical rates. 

He notes that by the early elementary years, boys fall behind girls, and then could get lumped into a group of students who don’t learn very well, including those with learning disorders and behavioral issues. That may lead to a “hope deficit” among young men, where they can get turned off by school. 

“It's very noticeable. By fourth grade, there's a lot of boys who aren't reading at grade level far more than girls. ... They end up expelled in much greater numbers … [and] dropping out in much greater numbers.”

He adds, “Then there’s this cultural issue. Universities were built by rich white men for their sons, and white boys in particular have been the most privileged class. And so the messages tend to be that these are privileged kids who don't need help. … And if they're not doing well, then it's a little bit harder for them to get help. So all these things kind of combined to create ... a narrow, rickety ladder across education for boys.”

And despite a bevy of resources available to all college students, Belkin says male students are less likely to seek help.

“The issue is that boys tend to not reach out when they need help. Girls are much more likely to go to the counseling centers [and] to go to the tutoring centers. … So it's not that the schools don't offer ways that boys can get help, it's more that the boys aren't seeking it.” 

How could this impact society down the road? Belkin argues that traditionally, women want to date and marry men with equal or greater education than them. And with a smaller dating pool to choose from, forming families might become more difficult.

“If boys and men aren't getting educated at the same level, and a lot of professions are closed to them, family formation is going to be stressed. So it's not just a problem for boys, but for women as well,” he says. “You saw in the African American community for years and years — there's this mass incarceration of Black guys. And Black women complain, ‘Where all the Black men to date?’ I think the white community is heading towards something like that with regard to education.”

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Michell Eloy