National Catholic Register


A Question of Degree: Most College Students Are Women

BY Dana Wind

Septembar 29-October 5, 2002 Issue | Posted 9/29/02 at 1:00 PM


STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — Noticing the influx of applications from women over the past years, administrators at the Franciscan University of Steubenville made strong efforts in male recruitment to keep an equal gender balance. Then they stopped.

“We found that we were pushing a boulder uphill,” said Dean of Enrollment Joel Recznik. “We're here to serve the Church and if we get more applications from women, then we will take them as they come.”

Females now make up 60% of the school's student body, and Franciscan University is far from alone in dealing with gender-related issues such as housing.

“We're a mirror image of what you'd see in national averages,” Recznik said.

This year, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 698,000 women entered college, compared with just 529,000 men. Between 1975 and 1997, the number of women in college rose from 5 million to 8 million, but the male population remained around 6 million. In 1947, only 39% of college students were female. Today that percentage has reached 57 and is expected to keep rising.

The divide is even wider within certain ethnic groups. Hispanic men earn only 40% of degrees for that group, and two black women earn degrees for every one man.

At Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., men make up just 45% of the school's student body, and Director of Admissions Paul Heisler said he could have accepted even more women if the residence halls had enough space.

He attributes the trend to the marketplace. “The focus today of going to college is to get a job,” he said. “We're a liberal arts school, and men tend to be more interested in putting bread on the table, so I think naturally we have more women applying.”

The theories are plentiful. One speculation is that more men are entering the technology field, which doesn't necessarily require a college degree. Others claim the educational process is geared toward women's learning styles and therefore puts men at a disadvantage. Still more say women are simply better students.

Bridget Maher, a policy analyst with the Family Research Council, has a succinct answer: “Women are encouraged to focus on work and career, and family and marriage come later.”

At first glance, women seem to have made great strides. Granted, more are in college. But what happens when they graduate?

“The advantages stop after the undergraduate level,” explained Sandra Hanson, a professor of sociology at the Catholic University of America. Proof lies in the fact that men still outnumber women in master's and doctoral programs by a large percentage. And in the work-place, women don't hold the share of jobs that would seem to be allotted to them by virtue of college degrees.

“Women might get 17% of engineering degrees, but women do not make up 17% of all engineers,” Hanson said.

In fact, engineering is one field where women are still markedly absent in classrooms. So are science, mathematics and most traditionally male-dominated fields.

The subjects that have seen increased female enrollment are those that have attracted women all along: nursing, teaching and the life sciences. And contrary to what the trend would indicate, more women with children are choosing to stay home or work part time than in recent years, Maher said.

Social Impact

Since the trend of more women earning college degrees doesn't necessarily translate to more women entering the work force, the impact on the family remains unknown. However, researchers forecast certain societal changes.

One consequence is that women could have trouble finding prospective husbands.

In a world where education is associated with power, influence and success, a college degree is a form of social status. With more women than men earning degrees, the social spectrum shifts.

“Women tend to marry up,” Hanson said, “and relationships are more successful and more comfortable if the male has a higher status. When people go against the norm, these marriages are less likely to succeed.”

Maher points out that girls in school are taught to be career-oriented. “The emphasis is on being secure in your career first,” she said. “Consideration of who will be your spouse, who will father your children, is secondary.”

Stemming from this is an implicit choice — a woman can have a career or a woman can have a family.

That's a big problem with the educational system, according to theology professor Margaret McCarthy of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.

“Getting an education is not antithetical to a vocation,” she said, defining vocation as an individual's state of life. “These states of life become the context in which all the other activities, like work, take place. It should be an essential ingredient of a child's education to think about vocation and not just career.”

But if girls are being guided toward the career route instead of the family route, what's happening to the boys?

Nothing, researchers say. The number of men entering college has increased steadily. The skewed numbers occur because more women are entering college than pursuing the other post-high school options.

“Women have made no inroads into the unionized jobs, the production or service jobs that have been predominantly male,” Hanson said. “Men's roles haven't changed. We're just changing what we expect of women.”

However, statistics show that as early as junior high school more girls than boys say they expect to attend college.

“Girls are more willing to play the game,” McCarthy said. “If education is boring, if they're just trying to get you to pass the test, the girls will play the game longer.”

What's needed, she said, is an educational system that places learning within the context of reality.

“Education is ultimately for the formation of the human being,” she said. “Training for a trade should be secondary.”

Dana Wind writes from Raleigh, North Carolina.