Women have not only closed the historical gender gap in educational attainment, but have surpassed the college-going rates of men.

Women have not only closed the historical gender gap in education attainment, but have surpassed the college-going rates of men. Credit.Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

Walk across any college campus these days, and you will notice a striking gender gap: There are roughly three women students for every two men, according to data from the educational nonprofit National Student Clearinghouse.

It’s the result of a decades-long trend, in which women have not only closed the historical gender gap in educational attainment, but have surpassed the college-going rates of men. And that trend doesn’t appear to be slowing down: The latest enrollment numbersfor spring 2021 show a record gap between the sexes.

For younger generations of men and women, the opening act of their adult lives is likely to follow quite different scripts. It’s a difference likely to echo through their later years, leading today’s young adults to make different romantic choices than earlier generations, to choose different family forms, and to make career decisions that will fundamentally reshape the economy. The rising gender gap in higher education might turn out to be one of the most transformative trends of our time.

The college gender gap is one of those slow-boiling trends that has built over several decades, and it reflects women pursuing higher education at greater rates than ever before, while college-going rates among men have stalled for reasons that mystify experts. The gap in graduation rates is even larger, because male undergraduates are less likely to complete their degree.

Despite that plateau in the share of young men going to college, their failure to invest more in higher education than earlier generations stands at odds with the usual historical pattern in which each cohort gets more education than its predecessors. Even more puzzling, this has occurred during a period in which the career and financial benefits of a college degree have grown dramatically. Women largely have responded to this market signal, but men have not.

Women became a majority of college students in 1979, and the trend line has continued rising. While this gender gap has stopped widening over recent years, it has also shown no signs of reversing. Moreover, the latest data suggest that the pandemic has led more men than women to opt out of college.

Women have also edged ahead in prestigious programs like medicinelaw, and masters and doctoral degrees. While men still hold the lead in business schools, women are gaining ground. And so the usual hothouses that grow captains of industry and political leaders are now dominated by women — though men are still a majority of students in some of the highest paying fields like business, computer science and engineering.

Till date, women have not seen the full rewards of their rising education levels, as their pay continues to lag behind that of men. Partly, this is because other factors, including discrimination, remain at play. Partly, it reflects choices that women have made in response to their greater family burdens. And partly, this is an unfinished revolution. While young women are earning more degrees than young men, across the whole labor force — which includes older cohorts — educational attainment is roughly equal. The structure of high-paying jobs will slowly adapt to better fit the needs of women as they become a more dominant share of the educated work force.

So far, the story is one of greater gender equality in the market supporting equality within the household, and vice versa. But looking forward, what are the likely consequences of the widening inequality that will follow from women accumulating more education than men?

Source: The New York Times

Author: Justin Wolfers

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