Diversity in Academe 2013

Colleges Confront a Gender Gap in Student Engagement

AJ Mast for The Chronicle

Demetri Morgan, who is studying for a master's in higher education at Indiana U., noticed that women excelled academically as a way to assert themselves. But for men, "their social capital came from how many women they were sleeping with or how good they were at sports or what job they were aspiring to."
October 29, 2012

For decades, women have enrolled in college in greater numbers than men, and, by many measures, have outperformed them in the classroom. But in recent years, as social scientists and student-affairs offices have focused on other differences between the genders, they have documented patterns that could explain how engagement influences student development.

The focus on gender is leading some colleges to try new approaches to interacting with their students. And it is also providing some fascinating—if often maddening—hints at how differently male and female students experience college.

Women tend to study abroad, volunteer in the community, and spend longer hours preparing for class, some experts have noted. Men spend more time playing video games, relaxing, and watching television. But men have more substantive engagements with their professors, are more likely to do undergraduate research, and tend to major in fields that steer them into better-paying jobs. And although women do many of the things that researchers have identified as positive influences on a college experience, they also report higher levels of stress and lower levels of confidence than men.

Researchers continue to wrestle with those contrasts. How, they wonder, do such differences shape the way men and women experience college? The patterns prompt complex questions about the expectations that men and women internalize long before they even set foot on a campus.

"It's not necessarily that men are not engaged and that's bad, and women are very engaged and that's good. The real story is much more nuanced than that," says MaryAnn Baenninger, a scholar of gender and cognition and president of the College of Saint Benedict, a women's college in Minnesota. Saint Benedict has close ties to the all-male Saint John's University, sharing a curriculum and extracurricular activities with the institution six miles down the road.

Girls and boys are treated differently from the day they're born, Ms. Baenninger says, and the disparities playing out on college campuses say as much about how men and women are socialized before they get to campus as they do about what happens once they're there.

"They're different," she says. "But there is probably something to be learned from both the women and the men in terms of how they navigate in college."

Looking at student-engagement trends in the aggregate—men and women together—can mask some important differences between the genders, researchers say. Men and women, it turns out, tend to view college differently—and those differences often shape their willingness to get invested in academic pursuits and other activities.

Engagement can be "a bit more eye-opening for men than for women."

Some colleges are trying to learn from the patterns. At Saint Benedict and Saint John's, academic awards used to be split evenly between women and men. (Women make up 52 percent of the two institutions' combined enrollment.) Then Ms. Baenninger advocated a survival-of-the-fittest approach. Now, she says, slightly fewer men receive awards: Phi Beta Kappa, for instance, is roughly 60 percent female.

"When left to their own devices in an academic environment, women are excelling," Ms. Baenninger says. But she's noticed that that doesn't always translate into professionally oriented tasks like career fairs, where men often schmooze more readily with prospective employers. The disconnect makes her wonder if the ideal lies somewhere between the women's academic gusto and the men's more laid-back approach.

"What good is Phi Beta Kappa if you don't know how to go through that job interview?" she asks. "And suppose you know how to go through that job interview—wouldn't it be great if you had Phi Beta Kappa on your résumé?"

When Demetri Morgan was a student at the University of Florida, he observed that his female friends were active on the campus and excelled academically as a way to assert themselves and find their footing at the large institution.

Not so for the guys. "That wasn't how they were defining themselves," he says. "Their social capital came from how many women they were sleeping with or how good they were at sports or what job they were aspiring to."

Today, Mr. Morgan, who graduated in 2011 and is now pursuing a master's degree in higher education and student affairs at Indiana University at Bloomington, sees a conflict between what he has learned from research on student engagement and what he has seen in his own life.

"I know plenty of guys who were only involved in the fraternity—and they weren't even really involved in that—and they're doing fine," he says. On many occasions, he'd get deep into discussions with other men about why it was important to get involved. They'd often meet his pleas with a pragmatic comeback: "If I'm here to get a degree, why are you talking to me about involvement?" he recalls them saying. "Sometimes I try to argue back about all the positive outcomes about engagement," he says. Other times, he felt they had a point: "I'm like, 'Yeah, you are here to get a degree.'"

Campuses of all stripes have struggled with how to draw in male students. Some, like Winona State University, in Minnesota, have men's centers. Others, like the University of Portland, tap into campus ministries to create groups like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In some colleges, a course—like "Rock Music and American Masculinities," at Hobart and William Smith Colleges—has served as a magnet for male students and a platform for talking about masculinity.

Gar Kellom, director of student-support services at Winona State and a co-editor of Engaging College Men: Discovering What Works and Why (Men's Studies Press, 2010), has found that three simple approaches work best: Get men together in small groups to talk and hang out. Employ "pied pipers"—other young men whom male students are likely to look up to—to make those connections. And if figuring out what men need is still a mystery, just ask them.

The gender differences that make those tactics necessary tend to become evident early on, usually during students' first year of college, says Jillian Kinzie, associate director at the National Survey of Student Engagement, based at Indiana. At that time, survey results have shown, female students are participating at very different levels than male students are. The women are volunteering in the community, spending more time each week preparing for class, and caring for dependents; male students, meanwhile, spend more time relaxing and playing intramural sports.

Many of those trends equalize over time, Ms. Kinzie says. But she is troubled by other contrasts. Women work harder to meet expectations, spending more time on drafts of papers, say, before turning them in. But men spend more time interacting with faculty on research projects and other serious academic endeavors.

"Women are doing more of the things that are beneficial for them in college," says Linda J. Sax, a professor of higher education at the University of California at Los Angeles and one of the authors of The Gender Gap in College (Jossey-Bass, 2008). But the fact that men spend more time on leisure is "not necessarily a bad thing."

The diligence and motivation that many female students display, though, often belies a complicated vision of their own skills and abilities. Women appear to be harsher—or perhaps just more realistic—critics of themselves than men are.

In the 2011 freshman survey, administered each year by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, men claimed to be above average at certain skills at rates higher than women—in some cases, much higher. They saw themselves as above average in academic ability, popularity, mathematical ability, physical and emotional health, and in negotiating controversial issues, to name a few. In some cases, the gender disparities were more than 15 percentage points. (Women viewed themselves as "above average" more than men did in only a handful of categories, including artistic ability and "drive to achieve.")

Men and women also respond differently in academic settings. Women may spend more time revising papers and hitting the books, but the impact of academic engagement on students' overall success tends to be stronger for men, Ms. Sax says.

"We know that men spend less time studying. But we know that if we can increase their homework time, they're going to reap greater benefits," she says. "There's something about the academic engagement that's a bit more eye-opening for men than for women when it comes to their thinking about their place in the larger world."

Ms. Sax has found that interacting with professors is a powerful influence on how women view themselves. It can cut both ways, though. If women feel that faculty are taking them seriously, they tend to feel better about themselves. But if they think they're not being taken seriously, that impression can undermine their confidence.

Some scholars question the severity of the differences between the genders. Race and class have a far greater impact on students' academic success in college than does gender, says Richard Arum, one of the authors of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011).

He believes the impact of engagement on learning might be overstated, or even misconstrued. Engagement is good for keeping students in college, he says, but while researching his book he found no evidence that students who were more socially engaged learned more. "In some cases," he says, "they learned less."

He found that the only differences between the genders were in grades—women had higher grade-point averages—and choice of major.

(Mr. Arum has had his own problems with engagement among male students: By the time he and his co-author went to press with Academically Adrift, the proportion of men in the sample had dwindled to 37 percent as male students dropped out. Today, as he continues research for a follow-up book, it's down even further, to 29 percent.)

Maybe increased social engagement would help more men stay in college, he concedes. "But it's not helping them learn."

With growth in female enrollment attributed in large part to an influx of women from previously underrepresented minority groups, it's men of color, researchers say, who are least likely to engage.

Mr. Morgan, the Indiana graduate student, has found that to be true. As an undergraduate at Florida and a self-described "involved guy," he wanted to understand why his fellow African-American male students held back. Under the auspices of his fraternity, he organized a group of black men to get together and talk about their experiences at the university.

The reason that black men didn't get involved, he learned, was that they didn't want to be seen as "gay" or nerdy. They also didn't want to seem white. After the discussion, Mr. Morgan says, he was angry. But he didn't know where to lay blame: On men, for hanging back? On the university, for not engaging them? On the women, whose energy the men saw as emasculating? "I was just confused," he says.

Some scholars and campus officials are grappling with similar dilemmas. But they do acknowledge that in other respects, the gender gap favors men. They still earn more than women, and they tend to dominate positions of power and prestige in government and the private sector. But Frank Harris III, an associate professor of postsecondary education at San Diego State University who has studied engagement among male college students for a decade, says that such eventual success doesn't let colleges off the hook now.

"Men are absolutely still more advantaged in society than are women," Mr. Harris says. "But I don't think that should be a reason for us not to do the work necessary to help men become better people."

The work that colleges do with men in their college years, he believes, could help them make better decisions later in life.

But first, colleges need men to show up.