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Missing on Campus: Higher Ed Seeks to Reverse Decline of Male Student Population

Admissions offices are trying everything from entrepreneurship programs to hunting classes.

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Hopeful young entrepreneurs in business schools routinely pitch ideas for startup companies as part of their classroom assignments. But the ones who were doing it at the University of Vermont were still in high school.

It was the inaugural Vermont Pitch Challenge, to which nearly 150 teams from 27 states and seven countries had submitted their entrepreneurial brainstorms. The final five had come to the campus to battle it out for the grand prize: a full-tuition scholarship to UVM.

Their ideas included a website to help previously incarcerated applicants get jobs, a nonprofit to provide mental health support to competitive snowboarders, a medical device to prevent the recurrence of a herniated disk, a company to rent equipment to farmers in St. Croix and an invention to sustainably recharge laptops, phones and tablets.

This competition wasn’t solely about helping the planet or improving medicine, health, employment opportunities or agriculture, however.

It was part of a long-term strategy to increase the number of men at a university where women now outnumber them by nearly two to one.

Painstaking research had suggested that entrepreneurship programs could appeal to high school boys considering going to college. The findings appeared to be right: More boys than girls had entered the pitch contest. And the university hoped that some would eventually enroll.

The approach is among a fast-growing number of efforts to increase the number of men in college, which has been declining steadily.

“We thought that this idea would attract men,” said Jay Jacobs, UVM’s vice provost for enrollment management, who declared himself pleased with the results. “We thought that this idea would attract racial and ethnically diverse students. We thought that this idea would attract what I’ll call geographically diverse students, students not just from Vermont or New England.”

The university needs all of those kinds of recruits. Vermont has the nation’s third-oldest population, by median age, making it harder to find students generally. That’s even before a dramatic decline in the number of 18-year-olds about to hit the rest of the rest of the country starting next year.

“Here, we’ve already felt the impacts of the quote, unquote ‘demographic cliff,’ ” said Jacobs. “We want to make sure that we are in front of any eligible student who is able to pursue their education at the University of Vermont, or in the state of Vermont.”

That particularly includes men. The proportion of applicants to the university who are male has declined from 44 percent in 2010 to 33 percent today, an analysis of federal data shows.

“I definitely do notice that,” said Melinda Wetzel, a junior who was having coffee with a friend in the student center. “In my big lecture halls, I’d say there are more women. And I do have one small class where there is only one guy.”

It isn’t just this university that’s searching for new ways to recruit men.

The number of men enrolled in college nationwide has dropped by more than 157,000, or almost 6 percent, in just the last five years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The proportion of college students who are men is now a record-low 41 percent, the U.S. Department of Education says. That’s a complete reversal of the situation 50 years ago, when men outnumbered women in college by about the same extent.

Men are also 7 percentage points more likely than women to drop out, the Clearinghouse reports.

“At conferences, when we’re in rooms together, we all know that this male enrollment gap is something that we’re going to have to deal with,” said Jacobs, whose office window overlooks the university’s grand historic main quad.

The ways universities are trying to address this vary widely.

The University of Montana — whose enrollment overall has fallen from nearly 16,000 to about 10,000 in the last 10 years, and 58 percent of whose undergraduates are women — found in focus groups that many of the men it was trying to recruit were interested in the outdoors. So this spring it sent targeted emails to prospective students highlighting its hunting class, forestry program and recreational opportunities.

“Have you ever eaten fresh meat that you harvested yourself?” one of the emails asks. “Apply to UM and develop a closer bond to the landscape than ever before.” Another shows a brawny, bearded man cutting wood. “Embrace the wilderness, embrace the axe,” it says. “There are few other connections with the natural world better than swinging a sharp axe with the smell of pine in your nose.”

Admitted applicants considering whether or not to enroll are also sent bingo-style checkoff cards with images of hiking, ski and cowboy boots. Other promotional materials include images of country-and-western shows on campus.

Housing deposits from men — which is how the university measures who will be enrolling in the fall, as it doesn’t require enrollment deposits — are up since the campaign began, said Kelly Nolin, director of undergraduate admissions.

“Ultimately all students want to know, ‘Am I going to fit in? Do I belong?’ ” said Nolin.

Among prospective applicants who are increasingly asking those questions, she said, are men from religious conservative families, at a time when universities are accused of being bastions of left-wing cancel culture. “We want them to know they won’t be criticized for their beliefs.”

Further west, the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center has gotten money from the ECMC Foundation to help community colleges enroll and retain more Black and Hispanic men and other men of color. (ECMC is also among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

“If, in fact, colleges and universities want to recruit and enroll and ultimately retain and graduate more men, they have to have a strategy,” said Shaun Harper, founder and executive director of the center. “It has to be based on input and insights from college men themselves.”

Instead of trying to figure out why so many men forgo college or give up on it after starting, he said, institutions should ask, “Wait a minute, what about the ones who are here and are successful?” Harper said. “What were the factors that enabled their enrollment and their ultimate degree attainment? There’s a lot that we can learn from them that we could scale and adapt to everyone else.”

He and others said they were skeptical of some efforts to enroll more men, such as doubling down on sports by adding more men’s teams in the hope that it will lure more male students, as some colleges are doing.

“They’re not all on sports teams. So that shouldn’t be the only lever that we pull,” said Harper. And even if highlighting hunting might be effective in Montana, “it feels so presumptuous about what really appeals to men. I’m just not sure that institutions understand the full range of young men’s interests, and so they tend to default to things like forestry and outdoor adventures. I’m not sure that would work in California or Maryland.”

Whatever does work, universities are under growing pressure to figure it out. Overall enrollment has declined by 16 percent in the 10 years through 2022, the most recent period for which the figures are available from the U.S. Department of Education. Another 11 to 15 percent decline is projected to begin next year.

And there are signs that the problem of attracting men is only likely to get worse.

Of high school boys in Vermont whose parents don’t have four-year degrees, for instance, only 45 percent aspire to go to college themselves, down from 58 percent in 2018, and much lower than the 68 percent of girls who do, a survey found. Even among high school students with at least one parent who has a bachelor’s degree, 87 percent of girls say they want to go to college, compared to 78 percent of boys.

The problem begins early. Girls do better in high school than boys, and are more likely to graduate. In the 37 states that report high school graduation rates by gender, 88 percent of girls finished high school on time, compared to 82 percent of boys, a 2018 study by the Brookings Institution found. Boys are more likely to think they don’t need a degree for the jobs they want, the Pew Research Center found, or go into the trades. Even if they do enroll in colleges, work opportunities lure them away. Men who dropped out of community college are more likely than women to say it was because of other work opportunities, according to a survey by the think tank New America.

That went through John Truslow’s mind when he was deciding whether or not to go to college.

“There was a point where I wasn’t thinking about college” and considered going into the trades or the military, said Truslow, who ultimately decided to major in business at UVM.

Among his male high school classmates who didn’t go to college, said Truslow, who was playing pool in the student center, some couldn’t afford it. “But most of the ones that didn’t directly go to college, it was mostly academic. They just weren’t feeling school and they wanted to do something else.”

A third of men compared to a quarter of women said they didn’t go to or finish college because they just didn’t want to, Pew found.

Richard Reeves, who studies this problem, said it may be more a result of having so successfully encouraged women to get degrees than having discouraged men.

“I think actually what’s probably happened is the opposite — that we’ve sent a really strong and positive message to girls and women. But we haven’t had similar messages for boys and men,” said Reeves, president of the American Institute for Boys and Men.

“We’ve now got to do a little bit of self-correction here and say, look, of course we want girls and women to continue to rise in the education system, but we don’t want to leave the boys and men behind.”

Reeves said that, just as male-dominated programs in engineering and business have made extra efforts to recruit women, female-dominated fields such as healthcare and education should now reach out to men.

“That’s another thing that higher education institutions can do, is look at their courses and see where are the gender splits the greatest,” he said. “Rather than thinking the football team is the answer, maybe more men in your nursing school is the answer.”

But the football team could be one of many answers. Among the more subtle efforts to attract men at UVM, the university encourages its students, faculty and staff to wear its colors, green and gold, on Fridays — the days when most prospective applicants are touring the campus. “School spiritedness” is another attribute that research showed appeals particularly to men.

“Coincidentally, Fridays are some of our highest visit volume days, yes,” said Jacobs, smiling.

UVM campus counselors say men who do enroll are less likely to join extracurricular clubs or seek help when they need it. Some men have “this lack of connection,” said Evan Cuttitta, the university’s coordinator of men and masculinities programs. “They have less experience in managing stress and advocating for themselves” and often aren’t as good at “that practice of asking for help.”

So the university has also started a program for Black and Hispanic male students that provides them with peer and professional mentors, summer internships, networking events and priority registration.

All these steps to increase male enrollment appear to be having some effect.

Identical twins Pierson and Parker Jones of Lutz, Florida, found themselves in Vermont for the entrepreneurship competition. It put the University of Vermont on their radar, they said.

“We haven’t looked at the University of Vermont,” Pierson Parker said. “But after this pitch, we’re definitely going to look into it. Because it’s definitely more interesting now.”

This story about recruiting men to college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Additional reporting by Liam Elder-Connors. Sign up for our higher education newsletter. Listen to our higher education podcast.
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