As the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly spread across the US in early 2020, higher education administrators and stakeholders wondered what this would mean for colleges and universities, especially in admissions.
A February 2023 NPR press release stated that colleges and universities saw a drop of just 94,000 undergraduate students (0.6%) between the fall of 2021 and 2022. This drop follows a historic decline that began in the fall of 2020.
Women comprise nearly 60% of enrollment in universities and colleges, and men just over 40%, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported. Fifty years ago, the gender proportions were reversed.
Now, higher education has sought to identify possible causes of a stark gender imbalance.
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment fell by 4.4% in August 2022. This number includes a 13% drop in first-year enrollment. Today, almost two women attend college for every man. These numbers indicate the highest recorded gender imbalance favoring women in the US.
In 1970, men outnumbered women in college, accounting for 59% of undergraduate enrollment. The uptick in men applying to college over women at this time was partly due to the high numbers of men enrolling to avoid conscription during the Vietnam War.
Since then, the female-to-male ratio in two-year college enrollment continued to increase until it hit about 1.4 in 1995. And the relative female-to-male ratio in four-year college enrollment also steadily increased from around 1995 through 2019. In the fall of 2019, the ratio reached 1.3.
The growing gender gap in higher education, both in enrollment and graduation rates, has been a topic of conversation in recent months.
In November 2021, a Pew Research study found that among individuals aged 25 and older, women are more likely than men to have a four-year degree. The gap in college completion is even wider in younger adults ages 25 to 34.
Most experts believe that the gender gap in college attendance does not reflect a failure by educators or college admissions officers.
Instead, one potential reason that could explain this trend is the academic performance of girls versus boys at the high school level. If girls are increasingly outperforming boys in academics, it will make sense that they will increasingly outnumber boys in college.
In the US, national testing results reveal that girls have closed the gender achievement gap in math by scoring on par with boys and far out-performing boys in English language arts. And in March 2016, the College Board remodeled the SAT, changing the structure and timing of different sections, the nature of questions, and scoring rules.
The figure below shows that girls’ relative performance on the SAT shot up in the 2017 class. And this uptick also coincided with the uptick in their relative enrollment.
The Journal of Nature Communications published a 2018 analysis of grades covering 1.6 million elementary, high school, and university students. The analysis showed that girls outperform boys of all ages, including in science, technology, engineering, and math.
The analysis also analyzed the results of over 200 studies done worldwide, mainly in the US. Overall, girls had significantly higher grades than boys by 6.3 percent.
Why Are Females Scoring Higher Academically?
Girls aren’t simply more clever in school. Some experts pose a possible explanation for achievement disparities between gender groups as the difference in brain development. Boys’ brains develop more slowly than girls, and they are much more likely to have attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or be diagnosed with a disability.
“It takes more than just being smart, for want of a better word, to do well in school,” said Jake Anders, the deputy director of University College London’s center for education policy and equalizing opportunity.
“Neuroscientists and psychologists are pretty skeptical of the idea that there are sex-based differences in our brains that would explain the schooling differences we see,” Anders continued.
According to a separate study published in the APA journal Psychological Bulletin, authors speculated that other social and cultural factors could be among several possible explanations.
For example, parents may assume boys are better at math and science, so they might encourage girls to put more effort into their studies. This encouragement could lead to girls' slight advantage in all courses.
Gender differences in learning styles are another possibility. Previous research has shown girls tend to study to understand the materials, whereas boys emphasize performance, which indicates a focus on the final grades. “Mastery of the subject matter generally produces better marks than performance emphasis, so this could account in part for males’ lower marks than females,” the authors concluded.