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Graduating Women

Submitted by on June 27, 2011 – 3:11 amOne Comment

Photo by Sasha W. via Flickr

Why did women’s graduation rates overtake men’s in the 1970s? Claude Fischer considers some possible answers to this question. Fischer is professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He was the founding editor of Contexts, the American Sociological Association’s magazine of sociology for the general reader, and edited it through 2004.

By Claude Fischer

It’s the season of graduation in America and, increasingly, that means it’s the season of women, too. This year, about three women will get their B.A. degrees for every two men who do. About 50 years ago, the ratio was about two men to every one woman. In a society that treats a college degree as the ticket to the middle class and the certificate of achievement, this gender reversal is a social revolution.

The trend has been noticed. There have been panicky magazine stories and books with titles like The War Against Boys and Why Boys Fail. Did the women’s movement, designed to establish equality, push the pendulum too far, spark a war against boys, and undermine men, as some suggest? Or have schoolgirls adjusted to a changing world faster than have boys? Why does the class of 2011 look so different than the class of 1961?

The Reversal

Back in the early days of college-going, when few Americans went beyond high school, there was a modest difference in favor of men. Then, as college-going expanded, it did so mainly for men. The graph below, copied from a 2006 paper by economic historian Claudia Goldin and her colleagues, shows the proportion of Americans, by sex, who had graduated from college by the time they were 35 – arranged by the year they were born. Among Americans born in the 1880s and ‘90s, few completed college and graduation rates were about 50% greater for men. (The women in those cohorts who graduated largely got teaching degrees.) College-going became much more common for those born after the mid-1920s. By the time Americans born in the 1940s were graduating in the 1960s, men were more than twice as likely to get degrees as were women. And then the gap closed fast. The class of 1980 had about an equal number of men and women. Now, it’s about 60:40 women tossing the mortarboards.

What Happened?

What explains this inversion? Whatever it is, by the way, is not peculiar to the U.S.; this reveral is common across the western world. Various scholars, including Goldin, and sociologists such as Tom DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann, point to several explanations, to changes that probably reinforced one another. We’ll look at a few.

But, first, let’s acknowledge a basic fact: For generations, girls have done better than boys at school. While we can debate whether there are inherent cognitive differences between the sexes, it is clear that girls go into school with skills and habits better suited to doing well at school: self-control, paying attention, not getting into trouble, eagerness to learn, and so on. The boy-girl difference in these habits grows over the years in school. The difference was not new in the 1970s and ‘80s. What was new was that high school girls started taking more college-prep classes, including hard math and science classes, and that girls in college persisted longer than boys, getting to that B.A. degree more often.

Given their long-standing advantage in school, why did girls then outpace the boys in college graduation only after the 1970s? Here are some answers:

  • They Responded to a New Job Market. The economy changed after the 1950s and ‘60s. There was increasing demand for workers with school-like skills – good reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, and analytical abilities – the skills girls were especially good at. (The demand for muscle and physical endurance on assembly lines, the jobs that men without college used to get well-paid to do, plummeted.) The message that there were good opportunities trickled down to high school girls; they seized those opportunities by beefing up their course work, delaying marriage, going to college, and persisting to the degree. In 1970, more than half of working women aged 30-34, worked as teachers, but by 2000, only one-fifth did. A wider world of jobs had opened up.
  • They Responded to the Decline of Discrimination and Discouragement. With the social changes of the 1970s, the discrimination and discouragement that women faced decreased. This made pursuing college a more attractive and more sensible course for them. (A story: In 1965, I overheard an eminent and well-meaning professor answer a young coed’s question about whether she should apply to his department’s graduate program. She could, he said, but he cautioned her: The faculty admitted few women to the Ph.D. program because they had found that many women dropped out to marry. With advice like that, not to mention the messages they got in high school, many girls would, of course, shelve their career aspirations. It is hard to imagine that the same professor would have given her the same answer in 1985.) Notably, women from less advantaged backgrounds experienced the greatest leap in college-going. Unlike women with highly-educated parents, they benefitted most from changing expectations. The “good” girl now was not the one who married as soon as possible, but the one who got her B.A. first.
  • They Responded to Greater Risks. The period when women overtook men in college graduation was also a period of growing turmoil in family life – later marriage, higher divorce rates, stagnation in men’s wages. Girls in the 1970s and ‘80s, according to this explanation, got the message that finding Mr. Right was no guarantee of security. If you’ll need to take care of yourself before and even after marriage, and there’s a good chance you will, you’d better have the credentials. Nor was it enough to go to college, as the joke went in the 1960s, to get an “Mrs.” degree; a B.A. was necessary. A student of mine, Sarah Ovink, recently finished a dissertation on the college gender gap among Latino youth. Many of the girls, more than the boys, she studied got the message from their parents that they had better secure their futures by earning a diploma. Life was too precarious.

Other factors may also be involved in the reversal. There is some evidence, for example, that the gender gap is widening in part because boys growing up without fathers or with poorly-educated (and thus, poorly-employed) fathers have fallen behind in the college race. Something about failing male role models may be contributing. Then, there is the advent of the birth control pill in the 1960s which allowed young women to avoid unwanted pregnancies, delay marriage, and plan families – all of which would make pursuing careers more practical.

Researchers are still trying to untangle the complicated and concatenated influences that led to the college reversal. What is not likely to be part of the explanation is a “war” against boys or men. The expansion of women’s claims to rights certainly might be felt that way by men who end up sidelined, say, male applicants to medical school who lose out to women. But the fact that many more women than men will march across the graduation stage this season has deeper roots, going back to who can focus on learning their ABC’s.

Implications? The implications of this development for gender relations and marriages could be profound — and could be the topic of a separate post. During much of the last half-century, American marriages became more and more homogenous, notably because college graduates increasingly married one another. Women found that they could get a diploma and a husband. (It used to be that women with college degrees were less likely to marry than those without; now they are more likely to marry.) We may be entering a new, quite different era of heterogeneous marriages, with wives typically having degrees and their husbands not — with who knows what ramifications — if they even marry.

This piece originally appeared on Fischer’s blog, Made in America.

One Comment »

  • Mary Keck says:

    I was just talking with my Gender Studies students about Gendered Education this week, so your post is very topical for me. Thanks!

    As you note, girls come to school more prepared than boys because being quiet and sitting still are traits more strictly reinforced in girls. What’s also notable is that most very young children are taught by women. During class, I asked my students to raise their hands if they had a male kindergarten teacher, and one (of approximately thirty) raised his hand.

    I’m not of the “War on Boys & Men” mentality, but I *do* question whether or not boys are able to develop an equally strong foundation for learning in those early years because they are taught in a female-dominated environment.

    Might it also be because stay-at-home husbands are less likely to be ridiculed in recent years? Perhaps because men aren’t as likely to be considered a failure if they take on those pesky feminine qualities of nurturing, they are willingly putting their education on hold (like most women once did) in order to raise a family.

    You’re right to call it complex. Like anything else, these changes are due to a variety of factors.

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