An education ‘he-cession’

Men keep falling further behind

THE PANDEMIC HAS walloped women economically, giving rise to the term “she-cession” to describe the financial fallout from COVID that has disproportionately hit them. Playing out much more quietly has been a long-running education “he-cession,” a growing gender gap in educational attainment that the pandemic appears to have accelerated. 

The latest numbers on higher education enrollment in the US are jarring. Women made up nearly 60 percent of all US college students at the end of the 2020-21 academic year, a 20 percentage point advantage over male enrollment, which stood at 40.5 percent. 

The gender gap in education is not new — it’s been growing for 40 years — but the pandemic seems to be fueling the divide. Overall enrollment in US colleges and universities is down by 1.5 million from five years ago — but men account for 71 percent of the decline. Closer to the onset of the pandemic, from the spring of 2019 to the spring of 2021, higher ed enrollment declined by 700,000, with males accounting for 78 percent of the falloff.

The pandemic-related education he-cession may even be tied, in part, to the employment she-cession. Colleen Coffey, executive director of the College Planning Collaborative at Framingham State University, a program that aims to keep students in school, told the Wall Street Journal that as women left the workforce to care for children whose schools were closed, some young men quit school to get jobs and help the family finances. The suggestion is that they were quicker to do so than young women college students — though the story offers no data on that point. 

But any impact of the pandemic on educational attainment is only adding to a gender gap that has been growing for decades. There is no single explanation for the phenomenon, with social scientists citing everything from fatherlessness to the “overdiagnosis of boyhood restlessness” and accompanying prescription of medications. 

University of Michigan economist Brian Jacob has suggested females have an advantage with “non-cognitive” skills — such as attentiveness, organizational skills, and a willingness to seek out help when needed — all things that could impact college enrollment and completion rates. 

If the education gender-gap trend continues, in the next few years two women will earn a college degree for every man. 

With men still dominating the worlds of business, politics — and the faculty rosters of higher ed institutions themselves — it’s hard to generate the same attention to, or sympathy for, the growing gender gap in educational attainment. Jennifer Delahunty, a former admissions director at Kenyon College in Ohio and Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, tells the Journal that colleges quietly practice a form of affirmative action for male applicants in an effort to push against the gender imbalance in enrollment. 

It is “higher education’s dirty little secret,” she says, calling it unfortunate that it is not being given “air and sun so that we can start to address it.” 

The education gender gap is a complete reversal from the situation 60 years ago, when 65 percent of all college graduates were men. What makes today’s imbalance particularly damaging to men — and to families that rely on their earnings — is the enormous premium paid for college education in today’s workforce. College graduates today will make in excess of $1 million more in lifetime earnings than those who only complete high school. Manufacturing jobs that once offered a reliable path into the middle class for those without a college degree have been disappearing for decades. 

Ten years ago, CommonWealth took a deep dive into the issue. A 2006 report from the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy found that the gender gap in education was more pronounced in Massachusetts than elsewhere. 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

A Northeastern University study of Boston Public Schools graduates in the class of 2000 found that, seven years after finishing high school, for every 100 men who had earned a four-year college degree, 146 women had done so, a gap that was much greater among Black and Hispanic students. 

“Men have been left behind,” Ira Rubenzahl, the president of Springfield Technical Community College, told CommonWealth in 2011. 

A decade later, the situation seems only to have gotten worse.