Leaving Men Behind: Women Go to College in Ever-Greater Numbers

Oct 20, 2021

The Pendulum Swings: Female Students Make Dramatic Gains Since 1970s

A generation ago, it was expected that most middle-class boys would go on to college after high school and land high-paying, white-collar jobs after that. Women were presumed to be headed for a life of homemaking or low-paid administrative or service labor.

But then things changed. More and more women began to go to college. By the 1980s, the majority of new freshman each year were females, and since then the gender gap has only grown. Between 1970 and 2000, the overall number of women enrolled in postsecondary institutions grew by 136%, while their numbers in professional school grew by a whopping 853%.

This growth, combined with the relative stagnation in the rates of enrollment for men, has led to imbalances in college gender ratios across the nation. In 2004, 9.9 million women were attending the nation's accredited postsecondary schools, compared to only 7.4 million men.

Gender Ratios at Sample Universities

School % Male % Female
Columbia University 47.9 50.3
University of Wisconsin, Madison 47.3 52.7
University of Texas, Austin 49.5 50.5
Purdue University 58.9 41.1
Rice University 43 57
University of Virginia 47 53
Florida Atlantic University 40 60
Kent State University 39 61
University of California, Davis 45 55

Source: Institutional Data

What's So Bad about Women Getting All the Degrees?

Men haven't kept up, and this might have consequences down the line. In a few years, for example, the ambitious women who populate today's colleges and universities might drastically outnumber educated men in their age groups. People generally seek equally educated marriage partners, and many experts fear that female college students will soon face a shortage of eligible bachelors (no pun intended).

Most experts also concur that undereducated, ill-prepared men are a net drain on society's resources. Males are three times more likely to commit suicide now than in 1970, and the decrease in the percentage of men in college has accompanied a clear decline in male participation in public life: in 1964, 72 percent of men voted for president, while that number today has dropped to 53 percent.

Some Barriers Remain

All this doesn't mean women are taking over society. No matter how the numbers are cut, men still earn more than their female counterparts, even when controlling for age, college major and professional field. New female education graduates earn 95 percent of what new male teachers earn, while female math graduates pull in barely 76 percent of male math majors' salaries.

Additionally, engineering, physical science and MBA programs generally retain a male majority, even as other academic fields develop double-digit female leads. Many researchers note that the fields in which men still dominate tend to be higher-paying than those favored by women, which may account for some, but not all, of the overall wage gap.

Women Don't Just Attend College-They Shine There

Despite the comparatively low numbers of women going into the hard sciences or engineering, the overall trend for females, at least in the academic world, is extraordinarily positive. Research has shown that women get better grades, study harder, party less and take advantage of more opportunities than men. Many male college students report being less concerned about good grades and more uncertain abut future career plans than their female peers.

By 2020, some studies say that 156 women will earn B.A.s for each 100 men. At the same time, manufacturing, the traditional fallback option for less-educated men, is declining rapidly in the U.S. Aside from the predictable jokes about how easy it is for male college students to find dates, this means that women may very well pick up a good deal of men's professional and academic slack in coming decades. But who knows? After all these years, maybe it's time to let women have a shot at running things.


Businessweek Online. 'The New Gender Gap.' May 2003.

Chronicle of Higher Education. 'The Gender Gap in Science.' Oct. 2001.

New York Times. 'The New Gender Divide.' July 2006. 'On Payday, It's Still a Man's World.' April 2007.

Economic Policy Institute. 'The Gender Wage Gap is Real.' Sept. 2005.

Atlantic Monthly. 'The Other Gender Gap.' Feb. 2004.

Seattle Times. 'Campus Gender Gap: Progress or Problem?' Oct. 2005.

Weekly Standard. 'Where the Boys Aren't.' Jan. 2006.

Columbia University,

University of Wisconsin,

University of Texas,

Purdue University,

Rice University,

University of Virginia,

Florida Atlantic University,

Kent State University,

University of California, Davis,

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