Finding Solutions: Closing the Gender Enrollment and Retention Gap in Higher Education

February 14, 2022 Watermark Insights

A recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article, titled A Generation of American Men Give Up on College: ‘I Just Feel Lost’, reported that American men are leaving higher education in such great numbers that women now far exceed men in terms of the number of students enrolled in college.

At the close of the 2020-21 academic year, women made up 59.5% of college students, an all-time high, and men 40.5%, according to enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit research group. U.S. colleges and universities had 1.5 million fewer students compared with five years ago, and men accounted for 71% of the decline.

For many, this might seem like a non-issue. American men, particularly white American men, have long enjoyed privileges that other races and women simply haven’t had access to. The concern, however, isn’t just that white American males are not pursuing a college degree or certificate, but across races, there are decreasing numbers of male students enrolled in both two- and four-year college programs.

The issue is particularly problematic because it is widely known that there is a strong correlation between education and income levels. A 2017 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that Americans who earned a two- or four-year higher education degree earn higher incomes than those who don’t. This “college wage premium” may vary from state to state, but the evidence is clear that nationwide, college graduates earn more than those who have not received a college degree.

The Widening Gap

The education gap between men and women, both at two- and four-year colleges has been steadily increasing for the past four decades. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in 1947, almost 1.7 million male students were enrolled in degree-granting higher education institutions as compared to almost 700,000 females. As access to college became increasingly viable for women, female enrollment steadily increased. Projected college enrollment of males in 2021 is approximately 8.5 million as compared to female enrollment numbers of approximately 11.3 million.

Additionally, women are earning their degrees at higher rates. The NCES finds that the “overall 6-year graduation rate was 65 percent for females and 59 percent for males; it was higher for females than for males at both public (64 vs. 58 percent) and private nonprofit (70 vs. 64 percent) institutions. However, at private for-profit institutions, males had a higher 6-year graduation rate than females (26 vs. 25 percent).”

Impacts of COVID-19

Gender gap concerns have only increased as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus pandemic has not been easy on colleges and universities. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that overall college enrollment fell to new lows during the spring of 2021, largely due to the pandemic. “Overall spring enrollment fell to 16.9 million from 17.5 million, marking a one-year decline of 3.5 percent or 603,000 students, seven times worse than the decline a year earlier. Undergraduate students accounted for all of the declines, with a 4.9 percent drop or 727,000 students. In contrast, graduate enrollment jumped by 4.6 percent, adding more than 124,000 students.”

Community colleges have taken the largest hit on declining enrollment numbers. Over 65% of undergraduate enrollment losses were from the community college sector. Additionally, two-year colleges saw the largest decline of enrolled male students. This may, in large part, be due to family finances. Women were forced to leave the workforce in droves during the pandemic, largely to take care of school-aged children who were home while schools were closed as part of pandemic lockdowns. Many young men left school to find work to help support their families during a very difficult time both financially and emotionally.

Why is Higher Education keeping this under wraps? Part of the reason is that American colleges and universities are currently overwhelmed with ongoing issues of racial and gender equality, safety for women on campus, and closing the equity gap. To put financial and workforce resources into solving the gender gap can be an unpopular choice. Additionally, colleges are having trouble reaching a consensus on what might be slowing the decline of male enrollment numbers.

Community Colleges Tackling the Gender Issue

Community colleges, which have long had increased enrollment numbers of minorities, are not immune to the gender gap among enrollees. Watermark (formerly Aviso Retention) student success and equity solutions help colleges and universities solve some of the biggest challenges in higher education, recently conducted an analysis of its partner two-year institutions. The results found that the “most recent three academic terms (Spring 2020, Fall 2020, and Spring 2021) appear to begin demonstrating a widening gap in proportional enrollment. Prior to these three terms, the average gap in enrollment was 22%, however, this gap has since widened shifting two percentage points on average in favor of female registrants,” according to Bryan Bell, Chief Data Scientist at Watermark.

Interestingly, Watermark also found that students enrolled in a certificate program appear to be the only population for which a prominent gender gap does not exist. That being said, across Watermark’s partner institutions there is a disproportionate gender gap in the most recent academic term with a higher average proportion of females enrolled in partner community colleges. 

With numbers like these all around the country, many community colleges are not taking the growing gender enrollment gap lightly. Although the Watermark Student Success solution works to engage and retain ALL students, there have been significant developments in the case of minority males at two-year public institutions.

In fall 2019, Watermark partnered with eleven colleges that were part of the North Carolina Community College System to create the Minority Male Success Initiative (MMSI). The MMSI was developed to address and increase the progression and completion rates of minority male students. The program was designed to increase minority male success rates by encouraging participation and collaboration among student participants and college departments. During the three-year program, participating community colleges assess student outcomes as a result of increased student and campus participation and increased program effectiveness and efficiency.

The MMSI supports minority male students through success coaching, Early Warning Systems (EWS) to help identify and connect with at-risk students, and student engagement software in order to meet students precisely where they are at.

After the first year of the MMSI program, partner institutions had two key takeaways. Among minority male students:

  • Racial/Ethnic Gaps in Persistence Decreased - Persistence gaps between white and minority male students decreased. Minority male persistence rates are closer to white male persistence rates than previously noted. This is good news, possibly pointing to evidence that the use of Watermark Student Success & Engagement (formerly Aviso Engage) through MMSI helped mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic on minority male persistence rates.

That being said, part of the disappearance in the gap is due to improved minority male performance, but in some cases also decreasing white male performance.

  • Racial/Ethnic Gaps in Course Completion Decreased - Course completion rates also decreased, though continue to remain high at 7%. Part-time and high-risk minority males were particularly behind their white male counterparts, as were those taking online courses.

What remains to be seen is how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect ongoing MMSI efforts. There will be updated information on the MMSI program forthcoming. That being said, Year One results show that schools that put effort into early identification of at-risk male students can have a significant impact on whether they persist to following semesters - and ultimately degree completion. For learning institutions facing an ever-decreasing number of male students, active participation by administrators to implement proven retention and success programs should be a top priority.

About the Author

Bryan Bell was the Chief Data Scientist at Watermark (formerly Aviso Retention), where he was responsible for analyzing data and ensuring that Watermark's efforts were adequately aligned with the needs of students and education leaders. A solutions-driven data scientist and entrepreneur with a passion for data storytelling, Bryan used data science to support the overall mission of Watermark. He was also responsible for Watermark Student Success & Engagement (formerly Aviso Predict), a collection of risk models created using data science methods to describe risk at institutions of higher education.

About the Author

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