During the past few years, I have walked into a number of classes I’ve taught, looked around and have been startled at what I have witnessed. I am talking about the X/Y factor, or the gender ratio. Gender imbalance was striking. A number (though not all) of my classes were more than two-thirds female.
I did not remember seeing such a gender imbalance in my classes during my first few years of teaching or when I was an undergraduate and graduate student.
I was so surprised that I spoke to a few colleagues here at my own and other institutions about this issue. They noticed identical situations in their classrooms and at their institutions as well. Indeed, it appeared the boys were either “not back in town” or they were not flocking to college campuses with the frequency that their female counterparts were.
By 2005, a number of publications started documenting and discussing the plight of young men in higher education. There were numerous articles lamenting the seemingly precarious plight of college-age men. The common theme in a number of these pieces was that these young men were in a significant state of crisis. The argument seemed to be that these young adult lads had been ignored, let down and marginalized by an indifferent society that considered the plight of young females more worthy of attention. While not all articles were this dramatic, the theme of gender disparity seemed to be a perennial one that found its way onto the op-ed pages in newspapers and as feature stories in magazines.
As I examined the gender disparity in a number of my courses, I was surprised and somewhat alarmed by what I saw. However, I did not arrive at the conclusion of many pundits, reporters and cultural critics had. I believed the problem was more complex than just assuming that women were frantically outnumbering men in college. Fortunately, a number of reporters and social scientists began to further explore this new phenomenon and proved the situation was more complex that many had initially been led to believe. Racial, social, religious and economic barriers were factors as well.
As it turned out men from upper-income families were attending college and professionals schools at the same rate as women and were still more heavily represented in technical fields such as applied sciences and engineering. Among men of color and lower income men in general, the discrepancies were more actual and acute. This should not have been surprising given the fact that men and women from modest backgrounds have frequently had to face many obstacles (particularly financial) as they labored to pursue a college degree.
Another factor is students from lower income or poor backgrounds have often attended schools that are frequently (not always) academically subpar, have out-of-date textbooks, indifferent or mediocre teachers and administrators, parents working multiple jobs, outdated curriculum and other external problems that can result in less than adequate preparation for college. In many cases, such an adverse situation can result in individuals temporarily, and in some cases, permanently forfeiting their goal of pursuing a college degree.
Truth be told, there are students who attend affluent school districts that have less than enthusiastic and incompetent teachers as well. The difference is such teachers are often targeted and dismissed early on. Moreover, many students in upscale environments are in school districts or tend to have parents due to their economic situation that can supplement any academic shortcomings the school in question may have. This fact in and of itself is a powerful asset.
I see a number of students who work extra jobs in an effort to make ends meet. Many of them, despite of receiving Pell Grants, student loans, work study and other forms of student aid, still have to resort to working 20- to 50-hour weeks given the increasingly expensive cost of attending college. This situation can potentially jeopardize a student’s grade-point average and result in academic probation or dismissal. Even among students who have the fortitude to struggle on and earn their degree, they are increasingly graduating from college with sizeable debt. In some cases, $100,000 or more with only a bachelor’s degree! This happens all too often to many college students. To me, ample student loan debt is a gender-neutral issue. It is also where a major source of the problem lies and is an issue that needs to be addressed. Fortunately, the U.S. government is beginning to provide alternatives for individuals who are in this dilemma.
Over the past two years, (at least on my campus) I have noticed a more equal gender distribution. This fact in and of itself is not bad. However, as I see it, the most effective solutions are to look at the economic disparity and the drastic diverse experiences from kindergarten to 12th grade that often accompany those from lower- and upper-income environments. Rectifying these problems would go a long way in closing the gap genderwise and in other ways.
Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)