John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

So Where Are The Men?

Last month while in San Antonio attending the 31st annual Conference on The First-Year Experience, I was invited to join a conversation of the Alamo Community College District’s Minority Male Committee. This is a very progressive community college district and I was pleased to have this opportunity. I thought the conversation was courageous and promising. The underperformance of minority males, relative to other community college students, many of whom are not doing all that well either, is a source for great concern. Few colleges really zero in on this.

For several decades I have been noticing, as have been other observer and demographers, the larger problem of underperformance by men per se, in college. I remember visiting one of the CUNY colleges back in the 90’s and noting that in a large group of “student leaders” (students active in leading clubs, organizations, service projects, and student government) there were hardly any men present. So I threw out the obvious question to the group: “Where are the men?” The answer I had in the form of a flip, but intentionally candid quip from one of the women: “It’s all about sports, booze, and sex—that’s where they are.”

And now, every campus I visit the story is the same: men are less likely to go to college; less likely to stay when they do get there; less likely to be involved in campus leadership activities. But they still want to play football and basketball. And the historically male orientated culture still predominates at most campuses, especially those with intercollegiate revenue sports.

And just the other week, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that men were significantly less likely to participate in study abroad.

And the Census Bureau has reported that in the largest metropolitan areas of the country when comparing the salary/income levels of unmarried, college educated, 22-30 year old males vs. females,that women are now out-earning men.

There has been a great deal written now by way of attempting to explain these profound differences. I am just commenting here on what steps we might want to take about this.

First of all, I would like to see every coeducational college campus have some kind of standing task force undertake a study of male performance on that particular campus. So first of all, we need to know more about this problem on a campus by campus basis.

To do this would take a great deal of courage. Many men who run campuses are reluctant to admit we have a problem. And for some of them, there is good reason and not just denial: they may actually be pilloried for using this ostensibly well intentioned effort as one more strategy to insure male domination. I have the pleasure of living with a caring, very smart, higher education liberal like myself, but one who has no sympathy for this problem. She notes that we men are still running the country, predicts we will probably long continue to do so, and just doesn’t see what the fuss is all about. My point is that on some campuses even raising the question may be politically incorrect.

It is the case that men are underrepresented as participants in many of the co-curricular activities that we know are so valuable as developmental experiences for college students, for example, service learning. One way to address this would be to abandon our “optional” approach to so much about the collegiate experience and make certain activities mandatory. Just imagine what the effect on your campus might be if you instituted a campus service requirement for graduation.

We also know that men are much less likely to see assistance, particularly in the first year of college, when they are, not surprisingly, more likely to drop out or flunk out. This is why I have long been an advocate for requiring most college students to take a first-year seminar in which they will be made to use certain helping services and resources. To quote a phrase now making the rounds on many higher education circles: “students don’t do optional.”

If we were really serious about this problem, we would address it the way we address other topics we value highly: we would embed it in the curriculum. I realize this would be anathema at some places, encouraging more students to enroll in gender studies courses, let alone require them. But really, we have to get students together to rationally study, understand, and reflect on how we got to this state of affairs and what THEY might do about it.

But, for starters, a campus task force/committee on the question of male performance in higher education would be a good first step. We have to start somewhere. Most campuses haven’t started at all. And we have to look at all men, not exclusively minority males. They are members of a much larger and less exclusive club.

So where are the men? Well, they’re out there — but we’re just not talking about them. Maybe we don’t even notice what is right there before us to see: if only we would look, then talk, and then take some action.

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