The dominance of female students at U.S. colleges these days is hardly a secret, but the extent of it sometimes is staggering.
An acquaintance who teaches honors seminars at Colorado State University recently told me, for example, that "last year, of 21 in my seminar, there were four boys. The year before, there were three.
"So not only do more women graduate," explained English professor David Milofsky, "but the best students tend to be women" as well.
Most classes at universities obviously aren't nearly so lopsided in their gender ratio. Nor is the overall CSU honors program, for that matter. But with nearly 70 percent women last fall, according to university figures, that program — the best and brightest at CSU — is still heavily female by any standard.
Such an imbalance is hardly unusual, either. The Census Bureau's 2012 Statistical Abstract reports 916,000 women got bachelor's degrees in 2009 (the most recent year with full data), compared to 685,000 men. And that already large chasm is probably widening.
Women are not only more likely to go to college, they're also more likely to graduate once enrolled. More women stick around for advanced degrees, too.
Now maybe this development is purely positive, with no discernible downside. That seems to be President Barack Obama's view. In an op-ed last year celebrating the 40th anniversary of Title IX, which banned gender discrimination in education, the president wrote, "In fact, more women as a whole now graduate from college than men. This is a great accomplishment — not just for one sport or one college or even just for women but for America. And this is what Title IX is all about. ... We have come so far. But there's so much farther we can go. There are always more barriers we can break and more progress we can make."
Yes, there are always computer science, engineering and math programs, where men still outnumber women and the tables can yet be turned. Sometimes the traditional dominance in those programs is quite dramatic, too, as you can confirm, for example, by scanning the names of this year's computer-science graduates at a top school like Stanford.
To be clear, Milofsky isn't attempting to raise an alarm about the overall gender gap, or at least not the outsized number of females. What he finds slightly mystifying — as do I — is why a nearly equal number of young men aren't willing or able to secure a degree. What are those who could enroll but don't doing? What are they thinking?
And what do their decisions portend for society in terms of jobs, incomes and even families?
It's possible, of course, that some of those college-shy men are making rational decisions from an economic perspective — piling up less debt in the pursuit of degrees that seem to give them no real edge in today's job market. For that matter, you could fill a large book with sketches of highly successful people who never finished college — beginning with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
Even so, to the extent that advanced education both has value and is valued, some young men clearly are selling themselves short.
The most worrisome possibility is that a growing percentage, for complex reasons, will be content simply to step to the sidelines and watch life go by. As The New York Times' David Brooks recently noted, "In 1954, 96 percent of American men between 25 and 54 years old worked. Today, 80 percent do. One-fifth of men in their prime working ages are out of the labor force."
Brooks describes this as a "catastrophe," which seems lurid, but it's a somber development at the very least. Even if academic achievement is overrated, it's often a sign of engagement with a broader life.