The Rising Gender Gap in Higher Education

by Gerard Liston

The widely held belief that whites, specifically white men, dominate higher education has endured for decades. Think of most college brochures and often this image comes to mind: a couple of white males laughing in the middle of a campus quad.

But according to the National Center for Education Statistics [NCES] that image is outdated and completely wrong. Now women dominate college. NCES studies reveal that “Between 2001 and 2011, the number of full-time male postbaccalaureate students increased by 36 percent, compared with a 56 percent increase in the number of full-time female postbaccalaureate students.”


Even more intriguing and disturbing: Black women have outnumbered black men for years, but the gap has widened. “The largest difference between male and female enrollments was among Black students,” notes NCES. “Over time, Black females … enroll in degree-granting institutions in larger numbers than Black males, and in 2008, females accounted for 64 percent of the total Black undergraduate enrollment.” At some historically black colleges, enrollment figures are extremely lopsided. Women make up 71 percent of the student population at Xavier University in Louisiana.

Within CUNY the latest admissions data point to the same result. Black female students greatly outnumber Black male students. In Fall 2013 black men accounted for 14,037 of the total 39,171 black students enrolled or only 36 percent. The gap isn’t quite so wide at CCNY where black men make up 42 percent of all black students.

These numbers beg the question: Why such a large disparity in the enrollments between black women and their male counterparts?

Joachim Casseus, a 22-year-old black male enrolled at Borough of Manhattan Community College, was shocked to learn about these stats. “I had no idea that this was the case,” he says. “I mean I have always noticed that there were more girls in my class, but I never thought it was really a thing. I just thought it was the luck of the draw, or that guys didn’t like the class I was taking.”

In Casseus’s sociology class for example he is only one of five males in a class of 25, and one of two black males. He speculates that more women attend college than men because women are more “productive.”

“Women are always on top of things more so than men,” he says. “In high school the girls were always on time with their homework and projects.”

He adds that black culture encourages men to get a job and earn money as soon as possible. “Money gets the girls and gets your mom off your back,” says Casseus. “Growing up that’s all you hear. If you want nice things you better work for it.” For many, the easiest and fastest way to get those things, Casseus concludes, is a job not college.

Social science professor Kevin Davis of CUNY, who is also black, agrees with Casseus’s views. Davis explains that historically, males of any race had one goal after high school: find a job. With a job a man can earn the status needed to find a suitable mate and raise a family. Presently the message presented to young black males, Davis states “…revolves around a culture where things and money are praised, not education.”

And many young men live in homes without a father present. That leaves athletes and music artists to become their role models, and many celebrities have amassed wealth and a life of glitter and fame without a college education. “Unfortunately that translates into wanting things and not education,” Davis says, conceding that this is obviously not the case for all black men. As the numbers demonstrate men do attend college, just not as many as one would hope for.

Stephanie Martin, a 30-year-old black female student at BMCC, takes a different view. She feels proud of what black women have accomplished. “For years women were inferior to men,” she says. “It’s great to hear we are beating them at something so important as education.”

As for black women outnumbering black men Martin is not surprised.. “We were taught college is not for everyone, that we were better off just getting a trade,” she explains. “Having a good job that pays the bills was the main focus growing up, especially for the boys.”

Martin, who works full time at a health clinic while studying nursing, says she plans to finish college to build a better life for herself. “I don’t want to be like my mom working day in day out, only to not have enough,” she says. “We can’t depend on a man to do for us so the only option is to do all by yourself. And an education is the answer.”

Time has demonstrated that education unlocks a world of possibilities. If black men don’t participate in education, their world will forever remain limited. In light of this, CUNY has launched a program, The Black Male Initiative, a university-wide program aimed at recruitment, retainment and graduation of young Black males. The program outlines nine steps to achieve this, all geared toward creating an environment that encourages young black men to enroll in higher education. The plan also facilitates a “pipeline” for black male high school students to transition into college and strives to increase the amount of black male faculty members. Overall the initiative hopes to reach black men in their youth to give them an opportunity to enter a world too many think isn’t for them.