Thursday, June 27, 2002
By Heide Seward, Research Fellow
As reported in a recent article in the Washington Post, the proportion of bachelor degrees awarded to women reached an all-time postwar high this year of 57 percent. Many observers believe this may spell trouble for both men and women in the future. As documented in BLI’s publication, Gaining Ground: A Profile of American Women in the Twentieth Century, by BLI Senior Fellow Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse, the proportion of women receiving four-year college degrees has been steadily increasing since the 1950s, reaching parity with men in the 1970s and overtaking the percentage of male graduates by 1980 (51 percent).
The problem is obvious as far as men are concerned: A smaller and smaller percentage of men in proportion to women are gaining the skills they need to be successful in the workforce, let alone in life. This disparity is problematic for women because it may mean they will find it more and more difficult to find marriageable men with compatible educational backgrounds. This problem is already apparent among African Americans, where women college graduates outnumber their male counterparts by almost two to one, and among Hispanic Americans, where only 40 percent of college degrees are awarded to men. Some commentators have long attributed the very high percentage of single mothers in the African American community to the lack of men with suitable employment prospects.
Women have consistently equaled or outnumbered men in terms of high school graduation rates since the early years of the 20th Century, and currently they outnumber men. In the past two decades women have also overtaken men in the percentage of master’s degrees awarded. Men still receive a higher proportion of advanced degrees –doctoral, medical, law degrees –but the proportion of women has been growing there in the past couple of decades, too. In 1997 women received almost 44 percent of the law degrees and over 41 percent of the medical degrees awarded.
In short, women have made tremendous gains in recent decades in terms of their level of educational attainment. This is certainly a positive development well worth celebrating. But it is useful to consider whether such gains might come at a high price, not only for men but also for their future families. For example, whatever one’s ideas about male/female roles in the workplace and the home, the reality is that in most families these arrangements fall along traditional lines: The father as the primary breadwinner and the mother as the primary caregiver for children. The dwindling proportion of men compared to women with a college degree, now more than ever a prerequisite for professional success, may help exacerbate the trend toward cohabitation as a substitute for marriage. Why? Because, like it or not, economic considerations have always figured in the decision to marry, and if a smaller and smaller proportion of men relative to women have the education and training necessary to provide financial security for a family, then this trend will likely only further dampen the incentive to marry. In any case, this trend portends a major social shift and perhaps a worsening of the war between the sexes.
According to the Washington Post article, some academic and business organizations are finally beginning to take the problem seriously and to find possible reasons why men are less likely than women to pursue a college education. It will be interesting to see what they discover.