The future is female — but is that entirely a good thing?
“Men are abandoning higher education in such numbers that they now trail female college students by record levels.” So declares the opening sentence of a Wall Street Journal piece that is creating a buzz.
Consider: Women now account for 59.5% of college students in the United States. They also earn 58.5% of master’s degrees and 52.9% of Ph.D.s. You can be forgiven if you find these numbers startling. The popular press focuses on the challenges women face and the assumption that it’s a man’s world.
That’s debatable. While it’s true that men outnumber women among law firm partners, CEOs and college presidents, that could be an artifact of age.
Seventy percent of high school valedictorians are girls. They make up such a disproportionate share of qualified applicants that admissions committees have been practicing sub rosa affirmative action for males for many years.
Some might note this female preeminence and shout hurrah for feminism. But I’d keep the champagne corked, because, let’s face it, women like to marry men who are their equals or superiors in education and income, and if this trend in education continues, a fair proportion of women are not going to be able to find compatible men.
I can hear the scoffing already. How Victorian! That is not the point. Marriage remains a life goal of most people. Americans are right to want marriage, which is associated with greater happiness, health and wealth for adults and with pretty much every advantage you can think of for children.
This brings us to a bit of social science research that deserves a lot more attention. It’s not news that marriage has been in decline for decades. In 1960, about 5% of births were to unmarried women. Today, it’s 40%. It is well established that children raised in single-parent families are far more likely to live in poverty.
But here’s the part that deserves more study: It seems that growing up in a single-parent home is not as damaging to girls as it is to boys. Comparing Florida brothers and sisters who grew up in single-parent families, an MIT study found that “growing up in a single-parent home appears to significantly decrease the probability of college attendance for boys, yet has no similar effect for girls.”
There is much other research finding similar effects. Richard Reeves, co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families, has said that when it comes to thriving in less-than-ideal family settings, “girls may be more like dandelions, while boys may be more like orchids.”
The gender gap in educational attainment may be an effect of splintered families. Boys who grow up without the steadying influence of two parents struggle more than girls. So, hats off to the gals who are killing it in schools, but for both sexes to be their best and happiest, we need to revive the norm of marriage.