Saving the 'Lost Boys' of Higher Education

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

October 02, 2011

In J.M. Barrie's novel Peter Pan, Peter explains to Wendy that the "lost boys" are toddlers who fell out of their prams at Kensington Gardens and were whisked away to Neverland.

"Are none of the others girls?" asks Wendy.

"Oh, no," Peter says. "Girls, you know, are much too clever to fall out of their prams."

Literary scholars can debate whether Peter was simply currying favor with Wendy or making a wry observation about the differences between the sexes. But there is no doubt that today, Barrie's clever phrase for those wayward youths has become a synonym for a very 21st-century phenomenon: underachieving males.

Higher-education officials have been wringing their hands about our own "lost boys" for years. And yet the flip-flopped gender gap continues to widen: In April 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau released data showing that, for the first time, women have sailed past men in obtaining both bachelor's degrees and advanced college degrees. The report sparked some discussion about today's shifting gender roles and the burgeoning ranks of stay-at-home dads, but over all, much of the commentary has had a matter-of-fact tone. Thanks to the likes of Richard Whitmire's 2010 book Why Boys Fail and The Atlantic's exhaustive cover story "The End of Men," Americans, it seems, are getting used to the idea that men are on the decline.

If the United States simply accepts that males will continue to lag behind their female counterparts in academic interest and performance, the consequences will be profound. This is no abstract issue: Ultimately, it could lead to a country in which millions of young men live with their parents and work lousy jobs with few or no benefits, and in which a class of highly educated, professionally engaged women is expected to support underemployed husbands.

The issue is not whether well-educated males should stay at home and take care of the kids. Today's "modern family" can work when it is a function of new opportunities, rather than a forced adjustment to limited horizons. If a husband can stay at home and run a successful online business while his wife practices medicine, great. But if he struggled in academics, dropped out of high school, and resents his wife's power and prestige, it will be a raw deal for all involved.

So why the inaction on the so-called lost boys? One effort seems to have stalled amid apparent lack of interest: a proposal to establish a White House Council on Boys to Men, spearheaded by the author Warren Farrell, who has published several books about gender relations and what he views as the myth of male social advantage.

The lack of progress may stem from our sense that males hold all the cards—an impression undiminished by the abundant research documenting their struggles, which affect boys and men regardless of race or socioeconomic status. Contemplated in the abstract, the image of hard-working women giving a bunch of masculine underachievers their comeuppance after eons of patriarchy might seem just. But the realities of the new gender gap are nothing to celebrate.

Admissions officials are among those who need no convincing on this score. Nationally, the female-to-male ratio in higher education is roughly 60 to 40 percent. Such gender imbalances can put colleges at a competitive disadvantage because boys and girls alike tend to look for campuses with even gender distributions. Not surprisingly, admissions officials have been accused of favoring male applicants in a desperate bid for balance—a practice that caught the attention of federal civil-rights investigators, who subpoenaed admissions data from 19 institutions in 2009 but suspended the probe this spring amid disputes over the data.

Meanwhile, the federal stimulus programs that helped colleges and universities make ends meet at the height of the recession are fading fast, even as states grapple with plummeting tax revenues and daunting deficits. For cash-strapped colleges and universities, the notion that roughly half of their potential "customers" are more likely to quit school early or skip higher education altogether is troubling indeed.

All of us ought to find it troubling as well, regardless of our gender or political persuasion. Amid a global marketplace brimming with hungry competitors, can we afford to foot the bill for generations of lost boys?

Establishing a White House Council on Boys to Men could be a good first step toward translating some of the widespread concerns about lost boys into concrete action. The commission that put forth the now-stalled proposal has identified five "crisis level" factors: education, emotional health, physical health, father involvement, and work. By combining the perspectives and findings of various experts, a White House council could provide a multidisciplinary, integral approach to a difficult social issue.

Meaningful action, however, will be impossible unless educators at all levels summon the courage to take a stand against the forces of political correctness and either/or thinking ("Either women or men can succeed, but not both"). The underlying causes of the problem of lost boys might still be matters of debate and require further research, but when it comes to how American boys are doing these days, the research is in—they are lost, and they need help.

Robert B. Smith is a partner in the Boston office of the law firm LeClairRyan. He focuses his practice on defending claims against colleges and universities.