50 years after Title IX, enrollment gains show the strides women have made at university campuses
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Kalani Nui Wilson is no stranger to being underestimated.
The junior at the University of Hawaii at Manoa is majoring in Hawaiian Studies and has her sights set on law school to focus on environmental and indigenous law.
“As a woman, we kind of feel a little bit left back sometimes ... in terms of our education,” she said. “So it’s kind of our way of proving the narrative wrong.”
At universities locally and around the nation, women like Wilson aren’t just changing the narrative but rewriting it. Women are now a super-majority at the University of Hawaii, and make up more than half of students in just about every major and at every level — undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs.
It’s a reality that was unthinkable just a few short decades ago.
And it’s in contrast to where women stand in other arenas. Women still make up a fraction of CEOs. They’re still outnumbered in Congress, state legislatures and governors’ mansions. They still earn less than their male counterparts. But on university campuses, there’s hope for a more gender-equal future.
So why are the celebrations muted? In part, over concern about the disappearance of men on college campuses. Nationally, women now make up 60% of all college enrollments. At UH-Manoa, men constitute just 35% of first-time freshmen. That’s a gender breakdown so lopsided that it’s beginning to raise questions about why men aren’t opting for college — and where they’re ending up instead.
The irony isn’t lost on Meda Chesney-Lind, a professor of Women’s Studies at UH-Manoa.
“We need more of a focus on boys and their problems and understanding that we’ve sent destructive messages to boys at the same time as we sent some destructive messages to girls,” she said.
“Those are now coming around to harm our young men.”
A Gender Shift
Fifty years ago this June, Title IX was enacted into law, prohibiting gender discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal funding. The landmark legislation, shepherded by the late Hawaii Congresswoman Patsy Mink, was a driving force behind the evolution of college campuses.
Back then, men made up about 60% of students enrolled in higher education institutions.
Today, women hold that majority.
“I think what we’re seeing is that higher education is opening up for students in ways that that wasn’t how higher education began,” said Nikki Chun, vice provost for enrollment management at UH-Manoa.
Chun said higher education started for privileged male students. But that’s changed.
Chesney-Lind agreed, saying Title IX and the women’s movement dramatically expanded access to education. “Men had that kind of leg up before Title IX and discrimination was legal,” she said. “And so law schools and medical schools in particular would admit no women or very, very few women typically.”
In fact, Mink was only one of two women in her class at the University of Chicago Law School.
Chun added inclusivity is an important aspect in driving the change we’re beginning to see in higher education. That’s why UH allows applicants to select male, female or other when identifying their gender.
“I think it means that we are, as a society, realizing that exclusivity and privilege were alienating,” Chun said. “It only perpetuates classism, perpetuates racism, it perpetuates a lot of ‘isms’ that are harmful to us.”
But where are all the men?
It’s not just that women are now the majority of U.S. college students, it’s that their majority is growing.
In 2016, women made up about 58% of incoming freshmen at UH-Manoa.
This academic year, the figure is 65%.
The university’s flagship campus is also seeing far more women applying to get in. Since 2018, the number of male applicants has stayed about the same while the number of female applicants has jumped by 1,200.
Chesney-Lind says there’s also another statistic worth noting: Men are now far more likely to drop out of college than women — roughly seven in every 10 students who drop out of college are male.
She suspects part of the problem is gender roles.
“Girls have always been socialized to be studious and to work hard and to listen to teachers,” she said.
“Boys have been more rambunctious and encouraged actually to be more active and rambunctious. So there’s a kind of stigma associated really with the kinds of behaviors that allow you to succeed in college.”
For many years, Chesney-Lind added, the male dropout rate didn’t matter as much because there were plenty of good-paying jobs that didn’t require a college degree, such as manufacturing.
But that’s no longer the case and now more than a third of all job openings require a college degree.
“So now we have a pattern that is a little more grim in terms of the world that awaits these young, say, high school graduates who are male because girls have been socialized to be good students,” Chesney-Lind said.
Aside from STEM degrees, which typically see a majority of men, women are also gaining ground in professions previously dominated by males.
“For many years, teaching and being a social worker were pretty much the only things women imagined themselves doing,” Chesney-Lind said. “But increasingly young women are going to law school, are going to medical school and seeing a bright future for themselves.”
The statistics for graduate school at UH-Manoa are largely the same as for the undergraduate level — 65% of enrollments are women, 35% are men.
A Complicated Problem
Chesney-Lind said women have always seen education as a way to “crack the glass ceiling” while men are more likely to feel “lost” as students. She adds that while we’ve done a great job of encouraging girls to stay in school, society also needs to take a look at how we reach out to boys in our messaging about education.
“The reality is we may need a men’s studies as well as a women’s studies,” Chesney-Lind said, “and we may need a focus on the male gender to try and heal this.”
Because the implications of a long-term gender imbalance on college campuses could be wide-reaching.
For one, men who don’t opt for college or who drop out face poorer employment prospects.
There’s also this: “When men don’t go to school, they don’t look like very good matrimonial prospects for women, and so women may not marry, or may marry later and may have fewer children,” Chesney-Lind said.
And what happens to men if they drop out of college?
They’re unlikely to get that higher-paying job, for starters.
Chesney-Lind said race also matters as minority men often don’t have the same opportunities as white men. In other words, you need the right support and the right role models to get to college.
You also need to avoid making the wrong choices.
“Because, you know, if you lead a haphazard life and you get involved with drugs and say drug selling then you get into trouble,” Chesney-Lind said. “And once you’re in trouble, you’re heading to prison.”
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