Men's Share of College Enrollments Will Continue to Dwindle, Federal Report Says

May 27, 2010

Women now account for a disproportionate share of the enrollments of higher-education institutions at every degree level and are likely to become an even more dominant presence on campuses over the coming decade, according to results of a study released today by the U.S. Education Department.

The report, a compendium of data published annually by the department's National Center for Education Statistics, projects that by 2019 women will account for 59 percent of total undergraduate enrollment and 61 percent of total postbaccalaureate enrollment at the nation's colleges and universities. Since the late 1990s, they have accounted for about three-fourths of the increase in the number of master's degrees awarded in the United States and nearly all of the growth in the number of professional degrees earned, the report says.

Among other key findings, the report, "The Condition of Education 2010," charts substantial increases in the number of people earning college degrees, how much money they are paying to do it, and the proportion of undergraduates who study abroad. It also documents that the for-profit sector of higher education continues to experience rapid growth, both in the number of for-profit colleges and in the share of students they serve.

The bad news the report contains is that, in the eyes of some national experts on higher education, the United States is not making nearly enough progress in moving more students through high schools and colleges to become more significantly competitive in the world economy.

"We are simply not on a trajectory to significantly ratchet up either access or educational attainment," said Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. "We cannot tweak our way to international competitiveness."

Noting that a growing percentage of American children come from minority families, Mr. Callan said that if the nation fails to do more to close the educational gaps between races and ethnicities documented in the report, it may pay "not only a moral and civic price, but an economic price as well."

Gains for Women

Between the 1997-98 and 2007-8 academic years, the number of women earning doctorates rose by 68 percent; first-time professional degrees, by nearly 35 percent; and master's degrees, by 54 percent, the report says. As of the end of that period, women were accounting for 62 percent of all associate degrees, 57 percent of all bachelor's degrees, 61 percent of all master's, and 51 percent of all doctorates being awarded.

The gaps between women and men are especially stark in certain minority populations. Among black students, women earned 69 percent of associate, 66 percent of bachelor's, 72 percent of master's, and 66 percent of doctoral degrees in 2007-8.

The report also notes, however, that at every degree level, young adult males had higher median earnings in 2008 than young adult females with the same levels of education. William R. Doyle, an assistant professor of higher education at Vanderbilt University who has studied sex-based differences in educational attainment, said in an interview Wednesday that women's lower earnings compared with those of equally educated men helps explain why women are progressing further through the education system.

"We have known for a long time that the amount of education people pursue is driven in some part by the labor market," Mr. Doyle said. "For women, if you want to get a decent job and decent earnings, the state of the labor market is such that you are going to need to pursue a couple of extra years of education."

Also helping to explain disparities between men and women in higher education, Mr. Doyle said, are gaps between the sexes in their high-school graduation rates, especially among people who are black, Hispanic, or Native American. The underrepresentation of men in higher education is partly the result of "a tremendous intake problem," he said.

Despite their overall gains in higher education, women remain severely underrepresented in certain fields, the report shows. For example, as of 2007-8, they earned just 17 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded in engineering and engineering technologies. In computer and information sciences and support services, they earned 18 percent of bachelor's degrees, down from 27 percent 10 years earlier.

Growth—and Growing Gaps

From 2000 to 2008, overall undergraduate enrollment at postsecondary institutions rose by 24 percent, to 16.4 million, the report says. Private institutions, which experienced a 44-percent increase in enrollments, accounted for a disproportionate share of growth.

The report says postbaccalaureate enrollment rose to 2.7 million in 2008—having increased every year since 1983—and appears destined to grow to 3.4 million in 2019. It projected that total enrollment in all of postsecondary education in the United States would rise by nearly an additional 16 percent, to 19 million.

Although all racial and ethnic groups have experienced substantial increases in their rates of bachelor's-degree attainment since 1971, the gaps between whites and blacks or Hispanics in this area have actually grown.

One development that is very likely responsible for some achievement gaps is the growing share of the school-age population that is having to learn English for the first time. Between 1979 and 2008, the share of school-age children who spoke a language other than English at home rose from 9 percent to 21 percent, or from 3.8 million to 10.9 million. As of 2008, foreign-born Hispanic and Asian young adults were substantially more likely than their native-born counterparts to have dropped out of high school, while, among the nation's white, black, and biracial or multiracial populations, the foreign-born actually were less likely than the native-born individuals to have dropped out.

Among the good news the report offers minority members is that, among young adults with at least a master's degree, there was no significant gap between whites, blacks, and Hispanics in terms of median earnings as of 2008.

Low-income Americans of any race or ethnicity appear to have recently caught a break in that the net price they paid to attend a four-year private or public college, adjusting for inflation, did not increase from 2003-4 to 2007-8. Students whose families were better off financially, by contrast, experienced an increase in their net price of college attendance, which is calculated by subtracting the amount of non-loan financial aid students receive from all of their college expenses.

From 1999-2000 to 2007-8, the percentage of full-time undergraduates with federal grants increased from 31 percent to 33 percent, while the percentage with federal loans increased from 44 percent to 50 percent.

The share of students who enroll in college immediately upon completing high school has remained fairly flat during this decade, having risen fairly substantially from the early 1970s until the late 1990s.

Faculty Catch Up and Falter

For their part, full-time faculty members appear better off financially than they had been a few decades ago, according to the report. Adjusting for inflation, the average salary earned by full-time instructional faculty members with academic rank was 24 percent higher in the 2008-9 academic year than it was in 1979-80. The biggest gains over that time were made by instructors, whose average salary rose by 46 percent, followed by professors, whose average salary rose by 30 percent.

The report added, however, that much of the growth in faculty salaries since 1979 occurred in the earlier portion of the time span it charts. After growing by 14 percent during the 1980s, the average faculty salary climbed by 5 percent during the 1990s and about 4 percent from 2000 to 2009.

John W. Curtis, director of research and public policy for the American Association of University Professors, argued in an interview Wednesday that, even with such caveats, the report suggests faculty members are doing better than is actually the case. During the 1970s—prior to the span of time over which the report charts salary increases—inflation outpaced salary growth so badly, he said, that "faculty salaries did not again reach the levels from 1971-72 until the 1997-98 academic year."

"A lot of what was happening in the 80s and 90s was essentially just recovering the losses from the 70s," Mr. Curtis said.

When it comes to benefits, the picture for faculty members was brighter. Between the 1979-80 and 2008-9 academic years, the value of the average fringe benefits given to faculty members rose by 78 percent, causing their share of overall faculty compensation to rise from about 16 percent to about 22 percent.

The financial picture for faculty members varies significantly by sector. At private two-year colleges, for example, average faculty salaries were 4 percent lower in 2008-9 than they had been in 1999-2000. At private baccalaureate colleges, the average faculty salary rose by 9 percent during that time.

For-Profit Growth

The report says that, between 1997-98 and 2007-8, the number of for-private four-year colleges rose from 170 to 490, accounting for most of the overall increase in the number of four-year higher-education institutions. The number of for-profit two-year institutions rose from 480 to 550, while the overall number of two-year colleges actually decreased due to roughly a 5-percent decline in the number of public two-year colleges and a nearly a 49-percent decline in the number of private ones.

Partly as a result of such growth in the number of for-profit providers, the number of all types of degrees awarded by private for-profit institutions increased at a faster rate than the number awarded by nonprofit private and public colleges. From 1997-98 to 2007-8, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded by nonprofit private and public colleges rose by 27 percent, from about 784,000 to about 996,000, while the number awarded by for-profits increased more than fivefold, from nearly 14,000 to nearly 76,000. The number of master's degrees awarded by for-profit colleges increased eightfold, causing their share of all master's degrees awarded to rise from 1 percent to 9 percent.

Of the 1.6 million bachelor's degrees awarded by all of the nation's colleges in 2007-8, 21 percent were in business, 11 percent in the social sciences and history, 7 percent each were in education or in the health professions and related clinical sciences, and 6 percent were in psychology. Of the approximately 625,000 master's degrees awarded that year, 28 percent were in education and 25 percent were in business.

Over the 10-year period leading up to the 2007-8 academic year, the field with the fastest rate of growth in terms of the share of bachelor's degrees awarded was parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies, followed by visual and performing arts and by communication and communication technology. Education was the only field to account for fewer bachelor's-degree recipients at the end of that period than the beginning.

At the associate level, the field of social sciences and history experienced the greatest percentage growth in the share of degrees awarded over that time. Several fields, such as engineering and engineering technologies, experienced a decline in the number of associate degrees awarded.

At the master's degree level, the field with the fastest rate of growth in terms of degrees awarded was security and protective services. Among professional degrees, the field of pharmacy saw the greatest increase in the number of degrees awarded.

International Perspective

As of 2007-8, about 262,000 American students were studying abroad, up from about 62,000 20 years earlier. About 15 percent of students in bachelor's-degree programs were going abroad as undergraduates, compared with about 9 percent 10 years before and about 5 percent 20 years before. The largest share of undergraduates who studied abroad, 36 percent, were doing so as juniors.

The share who study in Europe had shrunk, from three-fourths to just over half, over the past 20 years, and the share studying in the Middle East had declined from about 5 percent to 1 percent, with a large share of the decrease occurring by the end of the 1990s. The share of American students studying in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Oceania, or at multiple foreign destinations had substantially increased.

Among college students who went abroad in 2007-8, the largest shares were specializing in the social sciences, business and management, or the humanities at their home institutions. Students who are majoring in foreign languages accounted for a much smaller share of those studying abroad than they did 20 years before.

As of 2006, the United States was spending about $25,100 per student at the postsecondary level, more than twice as much as the average of about $12,300 for all of the member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that reported data. The United States was spending 2.9 percent of its gross domestic product on postsecondary education, the highest share of any data-reporting OECD nation.

Changing Landscape

Among its other findings, the Education Department report says:

  • Educational attainment remains a key factor determining income. In 2008, among young adults ages 25-34 who worked full-time throughout the year, those with a bachelor's degree earned 28 percent more than those with an associate degree, 53 percent more than those with just a high-school diploma, and 96 percent more than those who did not get through high school.
  • The types of elementary and high schools that college students have passed through are changing. As of 2007-8, a larger share of private-school students were attending nonsectarian schools or Conservative Christian schools than had done so in the mid-1990s. And from 1999-2000 to 2007-8 the number of charter schools in the United States had risen from 1,500 to 4,000, and the number of students enrolled at such schools more than tripled, from 340,000 to 1.3 million. The report projected that total enrollment in public schools would increase by 6 percent, to 52.3 million, between the 2007-8 and 2019-20 school years, with much of the growth expected to occur in the South.
  • In a special section on high-poverty schools in the United States, the report notes that teachers working in high-poverty schools are less likely to have a master's degree than teachers working in schools with low poverty levels. Over all, full-time public school teachers have fewer years of teaching experience than they did at the beginning of the decade, but are more likely to have a degree higher than a bachelor's degree than they were then.