Nationally, it’s being described as a “male college crisis,” and Indiana is not immune to the trend. Male high school graduates are going to college at much lower rates than women, and that gap continues to widen.
Indiana higher education officials describe it as “a concerning gap …This is the first time in recent history the male college-going rate has dropped to below half (46%),” in reference to the high school graduating class of 2020.
In contrast, the college going rate for Hoosier women in 2020 was 61%.
The report focused on the overall decline in college attendance, with just 53% of Indiana high school graduates going to college in 2020, a one-year decline described as “alarming” by Chris Lowery, Indiana’s new commissioner for higher education.
The gender gap, one component of the report, “has caught the attention of a lot of people,” Lowery said in an interview.
The commission is researching the data and possible reasons why fewer males are choosing college, defined as the full range of credentials beyond high school, including credentials of less than one year up through a four-year degree.
Possible reasons include affordability issues and the perception it’s too expensive, Lowery said. Some may not see the value of college or question if it has the career relevance it did in the past.
But when looking at economic data, including unemployment, labor participation and wages, “Quantitatively, it does pay off,” he said.
“There are clear economic benefits that come with greater levels of education. People with a bachelor’s degree or higher are more likely to be employed and participating in the workforce, and they have significantly higher wages and a greater overall net worth,” Lowery has stated.
The issue is important both for the individuals affected, the state and the economy. Among those who don’t pursue post-secondary education, “The prospects for that individual, for lifelong economic and social mobility, become more limited,” Lowery said.
It doesn’t mean someone can’t be successful, he said, “but statistically, prospects for social and economic mobility lessens,” he said.
The decline in male college participation is also important to the Indiana economy and the ability of employers to have the talent they need with a tight labor market. “Indiana has a booming economy,” Lowery said, but the decline in male post-secondary participation exacerbates the challenges and availability of that talent pool.
Among the organizations taking notice is the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
Indiana’s overall decline in college participation, and among Hoosier males in particular, “is cause for serious concern in an economy that strongly favors workers with education and training beyond high school,” said Jason Bearce, the state chamber’s vice president for education and workforce development.
Companies today are looking closely at state- and metro-area education levels when deciding where to relocate or expand their businesses, “so we absolutely have to turn these numbers around for Indiana to remain competitive,” Bearce said.
Searching for answers
Rachel Meyer, a Commission regional outreach coordinator for Indiana’s West region that includes Vigo and surrounding counties, assists high school students in preparing for college, including efforts to secure financial aid.
She has spoken with male high school students who don’t plan to attend college. “I love my region students. They are brutally honest, which I love,” she said. “They give a lot of good feedback.” Based on her discussions, she believes a major reason is that those students aren’t sure what they want to do after high school and are reluctant to enter college without having a “final destination” in mind in terms of a career.
The young men she talks to also have concerns about the perceived expensiveness of college. She’ll ask them to take a guess at how much tuition costs at Indiana’s public colleges, and someone might throw out $200,000 for one year.
She’ll point out that the most expensive state public college tuition is a little over $10,000 per year.
Other factors also come into play. Many students are in foster care, or they may be couch surfing or homeless. Their basic human needs are not being met, “so it doesn’t leave a lot of room for them to plan or dream when really, they just want to know if they’re going to have dinner tonight,” a place to sleep or an opportunity to shower, Meyer said.
The challenge becomes, “How do we give them aspirations of thinking about the future when the present is so urgent and they have a lot on their mind, a lot on their heart,” Meyer said.
For those who opted not to pursue post-secondary, she’s aware of many going into the military or into the trades and they are able to have “pretty lucrative careers.”
The commission continues to research why young males aren’t going to college and what they are doing, instead.
In a November 2021 article for Inside Higher Education, Angela Baldasare wrote, “While the exact causes of this trend line are difficult to pin down, the pressures on men to work and provide are commonly cited, as are campus climates and services not tailored to men, increased uncertainty during the pandemic, negative impacts of the pandemic on career choices, not wanting to take classes online and the lack of internet access and/or technology.”
Insight into Diversity, in a March 16 online article, suggests the pandemic appears to have worsened the disparity, especially for men of color and those from under-served backgrounds in both urban and rural areas.
“Many experts agree that better support must be provided for male students starting in early childhood,” the article states. “Some theories suggest the decline in underrepresented men begins in K-12 education, as boys overall are more likely to be held back, drop out, and struggle with reading skills. By high school, young men across demographic groups tend to earn lower GPAs than young women in English, math, social sciences, and science, according to research by ACT Inc.”
Sylvester Edwards, a Terre Haute community leader and president of the Greater Terre Haute Branch of the NAACP, suggests that young people, including males, are electing not to attend college because they don’t see a future. “Therefore, why go to college?”
He added, “I think the spirit of the times is very bleak as far as what our young people are looking at and seeing.”
From climate change, to U.S. political division, to military conflicts overseas, young people view life as “bleak to a point where they have given up,” he said. “I don’t know why there is such a pessimistic attitude with young people. Maybe it’s because we haven’t given them a reason to be optimistic.”
Tom Steiger, Indiana State University professor of sociology, suggests that more young men are finding good-paying jobs in the skilled trades and becoming plumbers, electricians, carpenters, etc.
“The harbinger of the growing gender gap was beginning years ago, but really began to express itself with the millennial generation,” he said. More young men opted for skilled trades.
Obama-era policies emphasized training in the trades, as did the Trump administration, Steiger said. Add in restructured immigration policies, and “men are just responding to the market and a culture that defines those occupations as for men.”
What can be done?
Lowery said the response must involve policies, programs and partnerships.
One policy the commission suggests is automatically enrolling all eligible students into the 21st Century Scholars program; currently, fewer than half of eligible students enroll in the program. Eighty-one percent of Scholars go to college.
In terms of programs, the commission recommends expanding programs already underway, such as the Indiana College Core, a 30-credit-hour block of general education credit that transfers among Indiana’s public institutions.
High school students who earn the Indiana College Core enroll in a series of dual credit courses, which allows them to earn high school and college credit at the same time.
About 90% percent of students who earned the Indiana College Core this past year went on to the next step, Lowery said. “That’s amazing.”
Partnerships also are critical, he said. Young people, or even older students, want to hear from a trusted messenger, “and that is not necessarily government.”
Partnerships may involve nonprofits such as Boys and Girls Clubs; faith-based organizations; and employers.
As an example of partnerships, employers could host FAFSA completion nights for employees with high-school age children or they could conduct college fairs so students could learn about career options.
Bearce agreed that partnerships are key, particularly those that provide greater opportunities for students to engage in meaningful work-and-learn experiences, including internships and apprenticeships, before graduating high school. “Many male students who think it’s a choice between working or more school are going to choose a paycheck, so we have to give them relevant options to do both at the same time,” Bearce said. “Employers today are so desperate for talent that they may settle for lower-skilled workers, but they’ll be much more selective as the labor market shifts.”
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at [email protected] Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.