The American elite will be female

How women conquered college — and the future

(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Stereotypes tend to lag reality. Wall Street is personified by Gordon Gekko, years after his instinctive investing and sartorial flamboyance went out of style. We imagine the foreign policy community is reserved for lock-jawed patricians, a type that's hardly been seen for decades. Judging by movies and TV series like the The Chair, meanwhile, college is a different kind of boy's club, one dominated by strutting jocks among the students and tweedy graybeards on the faculty.

But it's been a long time since that was true. Despite its anachronistic reputation, the college population is increasingly female. Surveying recent data, The Wall Street Journal finds that women made up nearly 60 percent of enrollment in the 2020-21 academic year. Women are not just more likely to attend college, but also more likely to graduate. According to the report, about two thirds of women who enroll at a four-year institution graduate within six years, compared with 59 percent of men.

The burgeoning gender gap is an open secret in higher education. With none of the fanfare that accompanies their pursuit of racial diversity, many institutions give an admissions advantage to men. One reason is that administrators fear women are also less likely to enroll when the male student population drops below 40 percent.

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Women's success in admissions isn't only a dilemma for colleges trying to balance their books. Because elite institutions hire almost exclusively college graduates, campuses are the point of departure for female dominance of publishing, the culture industry, and areas of the corporate world — particularly the massive human resources industry.

Skeptics might observe that the upper tiers of these fields remain dominated by men. That's right, but largely a generation effect. Today's non-profit trustees, tenured professors, and executive editors began their careers decades ago, when college student bodies were more equally divided (and in some cases, exclusively male). It would be surprising if the gender ratio in upper management remained the same in another 20 years.

The continuing transformation of college into a women's domain has consequences that we haven't really begun to face. College-educated women overwhelmingly support Democrats. That may be a result of what happens while they're enrolled. But there's also evidence that women who enter college start out disproportionately liberal. However you slice the data, more women enrolled in college, from which they graduate at higher rates, encourages political monoculture.

Demographic change is a more plausible explanation of the progressive drift of the American elite than ideological conspiracy theories. In debates about the boundaries of toleration, women are far more likely to accept the principle that speech can be "violence." According to one survey, Democratic men support free speech online at about the same rate as Republican women (who are less likely to hold a BA). Sixty-six percent of Democratic women, by contrast, think "people being able to feel safe and welcome" is more important.

It's harder to find data about workplace policies. But it's a reasonable guess that college-educated women are more favorable to efforts to restrict what they consider dangerous, offensive, or disruptive behavior. There's also evidence that women prefer broad participation and consensus over majoritarian decisions. It's not a coincidence that promises to listen, consult, and empathize have become staples of corporate PR.

Simply describing the change doesn't mean it's necessarily a problem. Women are the majority of college students, consumers, employees, and voters. It's inevitable that universities, businesses, and other institutions will try to meet their expectations. We're a long way from the world of Mad Men.

There's also a meritocratic case for the female future. As The Wall Street Journal notes, the proximate reasons women outnumber men in higher education are that they apply in larger numbers, are more attentive to the admissions process and other administrative hurdles, get better grades, and lead more orderly lives.

The implications of this contrast scramble ideological intuitions. In other contexts, progressives tend to emphasize the importance of proportional representation. When it comes to men in college and college-adjacent employment, though, they're uncharacteristically quiet. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to argue that social goods should follow virtues, even when that leads to disproportionate results. But fears that men are being left behind are most often expressed from the right.

Even though it stands in tension with the principle that the most competent deserve their rewards, I think conservatives have the better argument. The migration of "woke" jargon from campuses to human resources divisions is annoying but not decisive. It's more important that declining educational attainment for men means lower wages and declining marriage rates, which promote family instability. In the long run, un- or under-employed men and unstable households are correlated with violent crime. It's not a straight causal arrow, but the dwindling share of men in higher education and the jobs it supplies could be downright dangerous.

Affirmative action for men probably won't work, though. Except at the most selective institutions, gender preferences means admitting more students with marginal skills or lukewarm commitment to higher education. That's a bad deal for universities — and for students likely to end up paying the price of a degree they didn't acquire.

PR campaigns and enhanced sports offering face similar problems. Better advertising or adding a football team can appeal to male applicants, but it won't keep them enrolled for the next four, or more, years.

Aware of the challenges, a few colleges have experimented with men's centers intended to help male students succeed. Ironically, these enterprises take inspiration from programs established to attract and retain women when their participation in higher education lagged.

The activities of these centers can bely their purpose, though. Far from providing a refuge on a campus defined by liberal women, they sometimes merely extend progressive logic to a different underprivileged group. On its website, the Men's Resource Center at the University of Oregon announces a commitment "to raising awareness about the intersection of men's health and social justice issues, exploring ways for men to play a more active role in ending oppression ..."

Rather than attracting the sort of male students who are alienated from higher education, this therapeutic jargon might as well be a sign encouraging them not to apply — particularly those from outside the professional classes. Although their student populations have changed, American higher education continues to be characterized by a streak of elite moralism that's survived in mutated form since its origins in religious instruction. Academic and administrative hurdles can be reduced, but universities need to take seriously men's perception that universities don't want them.

It's not all tweed and Ivy. But some of the cliches about campus life are true.

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