Good work: North Montgomery High School student Sarika Gabhawala looks at her Gram Stain slide as Heather Morson, medical laboratory program chair at Ivy Tech Community College, congratulates her on a job well done after her test in February at Ivy Tech in Terre Haute. The college going rate for Hoosier women in 2020 was 61%. The male college-going rate has dropped to below half (46%). Staff photo by Joseph C. Garza
Good work: North Montgomery High School student Sarika Gabhawala looks at her Gram Stain slide as Heather Morson, medical laboratory program chair at Ivy Tech Community College, congratulates her on a job well done after her test in February at Ivy Tech in Terre Haute. The college going rate for Hoosier women in 2020 was 61%. The male college-going rate has dropped to below half (46%). Staff photo by Joseph C. Garza
Nationally, it’s being described as a “male college crisis,” and Indiana is not immune to the trend. Male high school graduates are going to college at much lower rates than women, and that gap continues to widen.

Indiana higher education officials describe it as “a concerning gap ...This is the first time in recent history the male college-going rate has dropped to below half (46%),” in reference to the high school graduating class of 2020.

In contrast, the college going rate for Hoosier women in 2020 was 61%.

The report focused on the overall decline in college attendance, with just 53% of Indiana high school graduates going to college in 2020, a one-year decline described as “alarming” by Chris Lowery, Indiana’s new commissioner for higher education.

The gender gap, one component of the report, “has caught the attention of a lot of people,” Lowery said in an interview.

The commission is researching the data and possible reasons why fewer males are choosing college, defined as the full range of credentials beyond high school, including credentials of less than one year up through a four-year degree.

Possible reasons include affordability issues and the perception it’s too expensive, Lowery said. Some may not see the value of college or question if it has the career relevance it did in the past.

But when looking at economic data, including unemployment, labor participation and wages, “Quantitatively, it does pay off,” he said.

“There are clear economic benefits that come with greater levels of education. People with a bachelor’s degree or higher are more likely to be employed and participating in the workforce, and they have significantly higher wages and a greater overall net worth,” Lowery has stated.

The issue is important both for the individuals affected, the state and the economy. Among those who don’t pursue post-secondary education, “The prospects for that individual, for lifelong economic and social mobility, become more limited,” Lowery said.

It doesn’t mean someone can’t be successful, he said, “but statistically, prospects for social and economic mobility lessens,” he said.

The decline in male college participation is also important to the Indiana economy and the ability of employers to have the talent they need with a tight labor market. “Indiana has a booming economy,” Lowery said, but the decline in male post-secondary participation exacerbates the challenges and availability of that talent pool.

Among the organizations taking notice is the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

Indiana’s overall decline in college participation, and among Hoosier males in particular, “is cause for serious concern in an economy that strongly favors workers with education and training beyond high school,” said Jason Bearce, the state chamber’s vice president for education and workforce development.

Companies today are looking closely at state- and metro-area education levels when deciding where to relocate or expand their businesses, “so we absolutely have to turn these numbers around for Indiana to remain competitive,” Bearce said.

Searching for answers Rachel Meyer, a Commission regional outreach coordinator for Indiana’s West region that includes Vigo and surrounding counties, assists high school students in preparing for college, including efforts to secure financial aid.

She has spoken with male high school students who don’t plan to attend college. “I love my region students. They are brutally honest, which I love,” she said. “They give a lot of good feedback.”Based on her discussions, she believes a major reason is that those students aren’t sure what they want to do after high school and are reluctant to enter college without having a “final destination” in mind in terms of a career.

The young men she talks to also have concerns about the perceived expensiveness of college. She’ll ask them to take a guess at how much tuition costs at Indiana’s public colleges, and someone might throw out $200,000 for one year.

She’ll point out that the most expensive state public college tuition is a little over $10,000 per year.

Other factors also come into play. Many students are in foster care, or they may be couch surfing or homeless. Their basic human needs are not being met, “so it doesn’t leave a lot of room for them to plan or dream when really, they just want to know if they’re going to have dinner tonight,” a place to sleep or an opportunity to shower, Meyer said.

The challenge becomes, “How do we give them aspirations of thinking about the future when the present is so urgent and they have a lot on their mind, a lot on their heart,” Meyer said.

For those who opted not to pursue post-secondary, she’s aware of many going into the military or into the trades and they are able to have “pretty lucrative careers.”

The commission continues to research why young males aren’t going to college and what they are doing, instead.

Other perspectives

In a November 2021 article for Inside Higher Ed, Angela Baldasare wrote, “While the exact causes of this trend line are difficult to pin down, the pressures on men to work and provide are commonly cited, as are campus climates and services not tailored to men, increased uncertainty during the pandemic, negative impacts of the pandemic on career choices, not wanting to take classes online and the lack of internet access and/or technology.”

Insight Into Diversity, in a March 16 online article, suggests the pandemic appears to have worsened the disparity, especially for men of color and those from under-served backgrounds in both urban and rural areas.

“Many experts agree that better support must be provided for male students starting in early childhood,” the article states. “Some theories suggest the decline in underrepresented men begins in K-12 education, as boys overall are more likely to be held back, drop out, and struggle with reading skills. By high school, young men across demographic groups tend to earn lower GPAs than young women in English, math, social sciences, and science, according to research by ACT Inc.”

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