Charles McCollum: Women quietly running laps around men on college campuses

Advocates for women’s rights seem reluctant to acknowledge their advancement.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Graduates at the University of Utah's commencement ceremony, in Salt Lake City on Thursday May 2, 2019.

Like that fog famously described by poet Carl Sandberg, sweeping social changes sometimes come on little cat feet.

A revolution in college attendance has quietly taken place over the past two decades, but the general public is largely unaware of it, and those who do keep close track of such things seem to be playing it low key – purring a bit, maybe, but certainly not meowing or barking.

What’s happened while Utahns and Americans were busy watching superhero movies, looking down at their phones and arguing about everything that divides us, is that young women have steadily and markedly overtaken young men in college attendance and graduation.

As soon as this new normal settles in, we’ll probably argue ourselves silly over that, too. Or maybe by that time we’ll have entered a new phase of public discourse. As women become more represented in leadership — which an educational edge is sure to bring about — a lot of things might change, and for the better.

As a long-time newspaper editor plugged into a wide variety of media sources, I never saw a word about this trend until something appeared a little over a year ago in the Wall Street Journal. Yet in my parallel life as an adjunct professor at Utah State University, I got a hint of it the first time I stood before a classroom in 2017. That newswriting class had 10 young women and only four young men, and the ratio has roughly held through 20 or so classes since then.

After several semesters, I came across a USU statistical breakdown that confirmed what my eyes were seeing. According to the data, female graduation totals had been gaining on male totals for decades, then for the first time in 2009, more women than men received diplomas of all types combined. By the spring of 2022, the margin of difference had grown to more than 1,000 — with 3,848 women earning degrees compared to 2,740 degrees for their male counterparts.

National figures show women now make up a stunning 59.9% of the U.S. college population. That percentage, taken from data compiled by the nonprofit National Student Clearinghouse, was cited in the Wall Street Journal article.

“Men dominate top positions in industry, finance, politics and entertainment. They also hold a majority of tenured faculty positions and run most U.S. college campuses. Yet female college students are running laps around their male counterparts,” the article’s author stated, noting that if the trend continues at its current pace, women will soon be earning college degrees at twice the rate of men.

Gender studies scholars track all of this closely, of course, yet they’ve been reluctant to trumpet the gains because women still lag behind men in some fields of study, as well as the acquisition of graduate degrees.

These ongoing imbalances were cited by one of USU’s gender researchers when I emailed her on the topic last year. I was thinking she would be extremely upbeat about the overall picture. Nope.

Similarly, an online synopsis of a 2022 USU study, titled “Understanding the Gender Gap in Higher Education,” focuses predominantly on the graduate degree imbalance and not women’s overall advances.

Why the selectivity? My take is that so much effort over the years has been put into balancing the gender scales that many women’s rights advocates now seem reluctant to acknowledge any successes while more is left to be done.

And what if someone in higher ed now dared to suggest a recruiting effort for more guys? To many, I suspect this would be unthinkable after centuries of male dominance.

A subplot to all of this is the much-more discussed “decline of boys,” a favorite topic of the political right. Whether you buy conservatives’ claims that societal demasculinization is causing boys of the 21st century to underachieve, anyone who is tuned into today’s youth can see something is going on with young men.

A lot of 20- and 30-something males have a lack of direction and motivation. I blame it on video games, sports fan obsession and too much screen time, though explanations like this are surely way too simplistic.

That said, the performance levels of male and female students in my classes haven’t been noticeably different. Some students do good work, some do poor work, regardless of which gender box they check on the admission form. One difference I have noticed, however, is that girls tend to sit front and center in the classroom while boys tend to plant themselves on the outskirts.

With the way things are going, you have to think this dynamic is going to show up soon in the seating chart of our entire society.

Charles McCollum

Charles McCollum is the former managing editor of The Herald Journal in Logan. He teaches newswriting as an adjunct professor at Utah State University and can be reached at charles.mccollum@usu.ed