Sunday, December 6, 2009

The So-Called Boy Mystery

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently announced that it would investigate whether some colleges are discriminating against women in an effort to generate a more gender-diverse student population. Reaction was mixed, with some saying it's about time that the "crisis with boys" in higher education is acknowledged and addressed, and others expressing some disbelief and ridicule that the gender wars have come to this.

But part of the overall response really stuck in my craw--the oft-repeated claim that we "just don't know" what's going on with boys. According to many, sources for the gender differential in higher education are a complete "mystery," a puzzle, a whodunit that we may be intentionally ignoring.

Yes, there are numerous potential explanations for the under-representation of men in higher education--and in particular the growing female advantage in terms of bachelor's degree completion. For example, it could be that boys and girls have differing amounts of the resources important for college success (e.g. levels of financial resources or parental education) or that the usual incentives for college-going (e.g. labor market returns) have differential effects by gender (why, laments the Wall Street Journal, don't boys "get" the importance of attending college?). It's also possible that changes in the labor force or marriage markets, gender discrimination, or societal expectations play a role--or that the reasons have to do with the growth of community colleges, changes in college affordability, or shifts in the available alternatives to college (e.g. the military).

Sure, this is a wide range of potential factors, not easy to untangle. But while a few years ago we really hadn't a clue about what mattered or why (partly because the trendlines were just becoming visible) this simply isn't true now. This is a topic getting plenty of attention in the research community, there's a reasonable amount of solid data for analysts to use to tackle the major questions, and researchers are on it. Just as one example, I recently reviewed conference proposals for higher education sessions at a national academic meeting, and more than half of the approximately 50 I reviewed were focused on the gender in higher education question.

I've learned the most in the past couple of years from a series of studies conducted by Claudia Buchmann and Thomas DiPrete. Buchmann and DiPrete are well-known for their very rigorous approach to hypothesis testing, and thorough (though often complex) approach to investigation. Their findings on this topic have been published in the top sociology and demography journals--places, admittedly, media commentators are unlikely to find them. So, to help shape a more informed debate on this topic, here are two key Buchmann & DiPrete findings which deserve a wider audience.

1. The growing female advantage in BA completion is much more about college success than it is about college access. While it is the case that there have been changes in college participation (with women's participation growing more rapidly), the gender gap in BA attainment mostly stems from gender differences (among 4-year college goers) in who completes degrees. This suggests that whether or not boys "get" that they need to go to college has little relevance.

2. Women experience greater college success because they are academically better-prepared to do so. Boys and girls score similarly on standardized tests, but girls excel in terms of course grades--and these grades are highly correlated with college outcomes. In fact, the gender gap in college completion is well-predicted by middle school grades. Moreover, girls exhibit greater effort (e.g. on homework) and other important non-cognitive characteristics.

So the gender differences we now see in higher education are largely reflective of already-observed differences in k-12. Buchmann and DiPrete have tested for other explanations, including those described above, and they just don't hold much water. The empirical story is thus pretty simple--now that the (mostly cultural) barriers to college entry for women have fallen away, we shouldn't be surprised to see the issues we already know exist in k-12 having impacts on college outcomes.

Now, the search for explanations as to why there are gender differences in earlier schooling outcomes is the topic of a much more contested body of literature. Some argue that the problems lie in schools and that reforms (e.g. single sex schooling or the development of a more masculine culture in classrooms) should be targeted at schools. For their part, Buchmann and DiPrete think that the answers lie in some combination of school resources (the gender gap is smaller in highly-resourced schools), and a kind of culture re-orienting (driven by parental involvement) that can help more boys integrate attachment to schooling with the boy-culture desire to be emotionally detached. Girls exhibit stronger behavioral and social skills from the very start of kindergarten, and continue to exceed boys in the development of those skills throughout elementary school. Notably, the kinds of skills girls appear to have-more self-control, interpersonal skills, etc-are the target of certain kinds of preschools and parenting strategies.

In the end, does research tell us definitively whether the appropriate policy response to a gender gap in BA completion is affirmative action for boys? Of course not. It's pretty clear from these studies and others, including a new book from Thomas Espenshade and his colleagues, that any solution will need to address not only gender disparities but racial and class ones as well. The clearer implication of Buchmann and DiPrete's work is that policymakers concerned with the lower rates of college completion among men need to focus not so much on the actions of colleges and universities, but on k-12 education and pre-adolescent experiences in particular. This is a pipeline issue, and is has been for a long time--for decades girls have outperformed boys in most aspects of k-12 schooling (despite a chillier climate there), and as the barriers to entry into postsecondary education have fallen away, they have entered and performed better there as well. Buchmann and DiPrete argue that instead of targeting interventions at boys per se, reformers could instead target groups of students from similar social strata who are underperforming in school. In theory, at least, it should be possible to develop interventions that help all students, but incur particular advantages for boys.

To sum up: the gender advantage in higher education is not surprising and it's not a "mystery." In fact, there are some clear directions for intervention. So, instead of lamenting a "whodunit," let's get to work.


This particular post requires a long list of references rather than links, so here they are. Unpublished or forthcoming pieces (aside from the book) can be found on DiPrete's website.

T. DiPrete and C. Buchmann. Advantage Women: The Growing Gender Gap in College Completion and What it Means for American Education. Manuscript in preparation for the Russell Sage Foundation.

A. McDaniel, T. DiPrete, and C. Buchmann. (Forthcoming). The Black Gender Gap in Educational Attainment: Historical Trends and Racial Comparisons. Demography.

J. Jennings and T. DiPrete. (Forthcoming). Teacher Effects on Social/Behavioral Skills in Early Elementary School. Sociology of Education.

J. Legewie and T. DiPrete. (2009). Family Determinants of the Changing Gender Gap in Educational Attainment: A Comparison of the U.S. and Germany. Schmoeller's Jahrbuch.

C. Buchmann, T. DiPrete, and A. McDaniel. (2008). Gender Inequalities in Education. Annual Review of Sociology 34: 319-337.

T. DiPrete and C. Buchmann. (2006). Gender-Specific Trends in the Value of Education and the Emerging Gender Gap in College Completion. Demography 43 (1):1-24.

C. Buchmann and T. DiPrete. (2006). The Growing Female Advantage in College Completion: The Role of Parental Education, Family Structure, and Academic Achievement. American Sociological Review 71:515-541. (Note: This paper won a national award from the American Sociological Association's Section on Sociology of Education.)

J. Jennings and T. DiPrete. (No Date) "Social/Behavioral Skills and the Gender Gap in Early Educational Achievement." Working paper.