In a recent editorial, Wall Street Journal editor at large Gerard Baker noted that the share of female college graduates has risen to 57 percent, and posited that the disproportionate number of college-educated women is affecting the dating market. Since there are now four female college graduates in their 20s or 30s for every three college-educated males of the same age, and since women prefer not to date men whose status is lower than theirs, there must not be enough men to go around.
This hypothesis fits conveniently with a number of narratives, promulgated across the political spectrum from Bernie Sanders to Jordan Peterson, about boys and men falling behind or being abandoned by society. However, on closer examination, the story is a bit more nuanced. Baker makes a mistake common in trend pieces on higher education: He takes a statistic about “college graduates” and draws a conclusion that fails to consider the differences among the huge range of degree-granting institutions in the United States.
Every year in the US, nearly 2 million students enroll in one of the nearly 4,300 degree-granting colleges and universities. Of these schools, a few dozen at most would be considered elite, and maybe a few dozen more would be considered highly-selective. A hugely disproportionate share of writers at national media outlets attended a handful of elite private universities, and nearly everyone in mainstream media, and probably almost everyone they know attended elite or selective private universities, or selective state flagships. But these universities collectively educate only a small fraction of the total number of US college students.
US News and World Report ranks 400 universities and 225 liberal arts colleges, which pretty much covers every institution you’ve heard of and many you haven’t. But even this seemingly-exhaustive list still includes only 15 percent of degree-granting institutions. The traditional college experience of enrolling at the age of 18 in a four-year residential program at an academically-selective college or university is not the most common way in which Americans experience college. Millions of American students attend commuter campuses that serve the needs of training workers for local businesses and institutions.
When you take a statistic like the one that shows that 57 percent of all bachelors degrees are awarded to women, you’re drawing a generalization about the full set of 4,300 colleges that may not be true at specific schools, or subsets like the set of elite private universities. And, in fact, the disparity between men and women earning degrees at selective and elite universities seems to be much smaller than the disparity among overall college graduates.
Further down the rankings list, there were some significant disparities at schools like UNC-Chapel Hill, which is 62 percent female, NYU, which is 58 percent female, and UCLA and University of Georgia which are 57 percent female.
However genders were at parity or skewed slightly male at schools like Ohio State University, Binghamton University, Indiana University-Bloomington, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and University of Tennessee-Knoxville. My undergraduate alma-mater, the University of Maryland at College Park, is 53 percent male. At schools focused on science and engineering, the proportions skew heavily male, as at MIT, which is 54 percent male and Georgia Tech, which is about 60 percent male.
A spot-check of a few dozen elite and selective schools suggests that there is near gender parity at the most elite private universities, and perhaps a slight tilt toward women among selective private schools and public flagships, but not one nearly as dramatic as the nationwide numbers would lead you to believe.
And there is no evidence that women are outnumbering or outperforming men in elite fields. Women who hold bachelor’s degrees earn significantly less, on average, than men who hold bachelor’s degrees, which indicates that the median female college graduate is working in a lower-status job than the median male college graduate. About two-thirds of lawyers are men, while nearly nine out of ten paralegals are women. Two-thirds of financial advisers are men, and while women earn more master’s degrees overall, men earn two out of three MBAs. Men report most of the news at top print, television and online outlets. Five out of six engineers and three out of four computer scientists are men. Reports of a generation of lost incel dudes living in basements and anesthetizing themselves with Fortnite and Doritos are wildly overstated.
In fact, it is the least selective schools that are driving the national gender gap in bachelor’s degrees. For example, at for-profit colleges, most of which have very low admissions standards, 63 percent of students are female.
The elite schools and, to a lesser extent, the selective schools, train America’s professionals, its media and business elites, and its academics and thought leaders. Graduating from these schools denotes class and status, and women who graduate from these schools might be hesitant to date men who attended less prestigious institutions or did not attend college at all.
Less-selective schools, however, don’t signify the same kind of status. Schools where the median student scores below 1100 on the SAT train students for middle-class careers, and female graduates of these institutions are unlikely to perceive a status gap between themselves and men who work in skilled, middle-class jobs that do not require a college degree. It seems that the larger share of female college graduates is a function of the fact that middle-class jobs that skew heavily female are more likely to require a college credential, while male-dominated jobs of similar status do not.
Over 90 percent of nurses are women. To become a registered nurse, one needs at least an associate’s degree, and most newly-minted nurses have a bachelor’s degree. There were 101,000 bachelors degrees in nursing awarded in the 2012-2013 academic year, which means nurses earn about 6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in the United States.
Three-quarters of American schoolteachers are women, and all teachers must earn at least a bachelor’s degree. About 11 percent of all female college students major in education.
Jobs that confer a comparable status and skew male often do not require academic credentials. To become a plumber or an electrician, for example, one must complete an apprenticeship that often lasts for several years and pass a state certification exam, but these jobs do not require college degrees. The skilled trades are about 98 percent male. About 87 percent of US police officers are men, and only a third of cops have a four-year degree. In order to become a firefighter or a paramedic, you need a state certification, but not a degree. More than 90 percent of firefighters and more than two thirds of paramedics are men.
So, even though more women earn degrees than men, there is virtually no gender gap at elite schools, and gender gaps in elite fields favor men. What the data actually tell us is that there are significantly more women than men going to lower-ranked colleges and universities to earn credentials that qualify them to become teachers, nurses, paralegals, clerks and office administrators. The fact that nursing and teaching require degrees while law enforcement, emergency medical services, and skilled trades do not seems to largely explain why more women than men earn college degrees.
That means that the dating apocalypse Gerard Baker fears, in which a surfeit of educated, credentialed women can’t find any men of comparable status to date, will not happen unless teachers and nurses are unwilling to date police officers, firefighters, paramedics and tradesmen.
Daniel Friedman is the Edgar Award-nominated author of Don’t Ever Get Old, Don’t Ever Look Back and Riot Most Uncouth. Follow him on Twitter @DanFriedman81.