It looks like some folks at the Wall Street Journal and CNN have recently woken up about the differences between men and women enrolling in college. If my memory serves, I have been writing about this issue and its implications for society for some time. Maybe it’s time for the enrollment disparity – 60% women to 40% men – discussion to be raised to a higher priority in terms of social and economic policy.
“It’s a crazy cycle,” said Adrian Huerta, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California who focuses on college access and gender. “We know that when you have a college education, there are good outcomes with health. You’re more likely to live longer. It matters for employment stability and civic engagement. You’re less likely to rely on social services.”
There have been changes in some parts of the workforce. What were traditionally college/professional level blue jobs (mostly men) like lawyers, clinical psychologists, doctors, dentists have attracted more and more women. However, college level professional pink jobs (mostly women) like nurses, social workers, teachers still do not attract men in any significant manner.
What is it about earning a college degree that is a turn off for so many young men? The answer does not appear to be in the trades. Many of them are not turning to the trades as an alternative to college. There is a nationwide shortage of workers in the trades which tend to attract far more men than women. The reality is that those men and women who choose to attend a vocational program and learn a trade will in at least in the short term earn a decent wage.
It is clear that social pressure has pushed workers away from trades. Spenser Villwock, interim CEO of Independent Electrical Contractors, a national trade association, says social pressure for college to the exclusion of all else created a disincentive for new workers. “The message became that you need to have a college degree or you’re a lesser individual,” he says. “We aren’t exposing people to these opportunities, and the funding model in public schools supports college-or-bust.”
The evidence seems to indicate that women continue to make gains in a variety of good paying professional type jobs that require at least a Bachelor’s Degree yet continue to shun occupations requiring manual labor even when those jobs offer far better pay than non-college women currently earn. Simultaneously, a cohort of young men are not pursuing college or training in the trades. Is the increases in domestic violence, suicide and drug overdose a result of the men who are left behind without a degree or a marketable skill above a minimum wage job?
We need re-messaging about the alternatives to attending college. The focus should be on post high school training which includes college as well as non-degree training programs. Expanding apprenticeships along with high school guidance counselors and curriculum that exposes students to a greater variety of career choices would help. The reality is that the employment marketplace we are in now and the future skills rather than a generalist college degree are the most important factor in earning a good living.