The Truth About the ‘Male Enrollment Crisis’

Contrary to popular perception, male enrollment has increased at four-year institutions. But enrollment at community colleges has plummeted for men and women alike.

9 minutes
By: Jon Boeckenstedt
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Some people say the glass is half-empty. Others say the glass is half-full. I say the glass is twice as big as it needs to be. —George Carlin

You can’t read very much about higher education these days without hearing about the “male enrollment crisis.” It’s made the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, it’s attracted the attention of think tanks and trade publications and local news outlets. It’s clearly (we’re told) one of the most pressing issues of our time.

But is it? As with many things you read about, the reality is probably a bit more nuanced than you might suspect.

It is funny how things that affect people who are used to being the majority are labeled “a crisis.” For instance, much has been made of the so-called demographic cliff, a drop-off in public high school graduates that will hit the U.S. about 2026. While the farthest out we can see tells us that numbers will return to 2014 levels (not the end of the world), the real concern, perhaps, is that the decrease is greatest among white students.

One would have to wonder if we’d be talking about declining male college enrollment if it were the opposite: If enrollment of young men was surging, and young women were attending college in smaller proportions, would everyone be so worried? I doubt it.

No one is telling men they can’t or shouldn’t go to college, or that their career options are limited because of their gender.

So what is all the hand wringing about? According to data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), in 2010 men made up about 43.8% of all post-secondary enrollment (both two- and four-year institutions) in the U.S. By 2020, that number had fallen to about 41.9%. You might think, then, that the average person walking on an average university campus would be unlikely to notice any difference at all. 

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But when you dig below the surface, what the data tells us is that if there is indeed a crisis in male enrollment, it is not at four-year institutions — it is a community college enrollment crisis. 

Total college enrollment at two- and four-year institutions dropped by over 760,000 between 2010 and 2020 (from 17.2 million to 16.45 million), a 4.4% decrease; meanwhile enrollment at four-year institutions actually rose over 630,000, and male enrollment at four-year institutions actually rose by 70,000, an increase of almost 1.5 percent. 

Enrollment at community colleges is almost counter-cyclical with the economy, and we know the economy has been red-hot in recent years.

So the decline, then, happened at two-year institutions, and that is where men saw a huge drop: in 2010 there were nearly 2.68 million men enrolled in community colleges; by 2020, that number was 1.9 million, a drop of nearly 27 percent. Female enrollment declined during that same period from 3.53 million to 2.84 million, a 19 percent decline that is certainly worth worrying about in addition to the “male enrollment crisis.”

A data visualization showing slight increases among male and female college enrollment between 2010, but huge drops among both men and women at community colleges during that time (26% decline for men, and 19% decline for women).
Enrollment at community colleges dropped sharply between 2010 and 2020 among both men and women.

The drop of overall market share of community colleges from 36% in 2010 to 29% in 2020 means that every other sector has gained in that metric.

This concentration of the phenomenon does not mean, of course, that we don’t have a problem; just that the problem may be misstated. America’s Community Colleges take students farther from point A to point B than any other group of higher education institutions, and they are beacons of access and opportunity. In fact, one out of every 14 college students in America at not-for-profit institutions attends a community college in California. And right now, the data show that there are significantly fewer students of both genders attending these vital institutions. If they suffer, we all suffer.

As with many things you read about, the reality is probably a bit more nuanced than you might suspect.

Still, there is some more slicing of data necessary to understand what’s really going on: Taking a look at things in my neck of the woods, examination of Oregon community colleges suggests that the drop has been among part-time males, and is probably greater in career-focused programs that lead to a certificate rather than a degree.

Enrollment at community colleges is almost counter-cyclical with the economy, and we know the economy has been red-hot in recent years. So some of this is not surprising. The availability of jobs, especially in relatively higher-paying trades, is perhaps greater for young men, and the pull is stronger. Measured against long-term investments, many young men might feel the value of a two-year, let alone a four-year degree simply isn’t worth it. 

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Other people have explained this by suggesting young men don’t “feel comfortable” in the modern university. This, of course, is exactly the type of discomfort education should impart to students. Men are used to being the majority in most powerful societal institutions, and were the majority for almost all of higher education’s history in the U.S. The perspective of being in the minority, of having their assumptions challenged and attitudes questioned (perhaps for the first time), is likely to be one of the lessons most important later in life. 

This trend is different from earlier times in America when women or people of color were the minority, and people worked hard to change that pattern. No one is telling men they can’t or shouldn’t go to college, or that their career options are limited because of their gender. And that makes this crisis very different from the earlier trends, where people were actively excluded from higher education. If the economy cools down, we’d expect male participation to pick up again, especially if that cool down includes few job opportunities for people with a high school diploma. If that doesn’t happen, and enrollment of men continues to decline overall or even just in one sector, perhaps the trend will convert to a genuine crisis. For now, the “worst” that might happen is an increase among women in America’s political, educational, and business leadership.  

And, speaking as a man, I think that would be a welcomed change.

Jon Boeckenstedt

Jon Boeckenstedt

Jon Boeckenstedt is the Vice Provost of Enrollment Management at Oregon State University in Corvallis. He has over 35 years of experience in enrollment management and admissions, and has special interest in data visualization and the appropriate application of corporate strategy to higher education. Jon is an Iowa native, and holds a BA in English and an MS in Marketing and Management.

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