Plight of Young Males

March 9th, 2011

This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review site here.

male-student-2I am proud of my bona fides on supporting the advancement of women. It angers me to think how slow executive suites and boardrooms are to welcome more qualified females. Stubborn gender wage gaps for comparable work are unacceptable and must be closed.

However, with all of the attention and focus on supporting equal opportunities for women, we have taken our eyes off an alarming trend. Young men in the US are in trouble by any measure of educational attainment. It’s a big deal and, for reasons of political correctness, we aren’t talking enough about this growing national problem.

I refuse to believe the support of young American’s progress is a zero-sum game – that somehow if we call attention to the problem and take a different approach to improve the experience and outcomes of boys it would come at the expense of celebrating and enabling continued advancement of girls. We can and must recognize the unique challenges of young men and we had better start doing something about it now.

Have you taken a stroll on a college campus recently? Where have the men gone? In the latest census, males comprise 51% of the total US population between the ages of 18-24. Yet, just over 40% of today’s college students are men. In fact, in each year since 1982, more American women than men have received bachelor’s degrees. Over the last decade two million more women graduated from college than men. And the gap continues to grow. Michael Thompson, author ofRaising Cain, a great book on the plight of young males, illustrates the path we are going down with a startling extrapolation. He notes that if today’s trends continue unaltered, the last young man in the US to get a college degree will do so in 2068. Scary stuff.

The gender achievement gap is astounding. The average 11th grade boy writes at the level of the average 8th grade girl. Men are significantly underperforming women. According to a recent NBC news report, women dominate high school honor rolls and now make up more than 70% of class valedictorians.

Again, I am happy to see women succeeding. But can we really afford for our country’s young men to fall so far behind? A growing education attainment gap has profound consequences for the economy.

It mattered far less during the industrial era when young men in this country could find good high-wage jobs in the manufacturing sector without a college degree or post-secondary credential. In a post-industrial economy, the social contract has changed. The deal used to be that college was only for a narrow segment of our population. Everyone else willing to work hard could make enough money to raise a family and achieve the American dream of owning a home, without higher education. With the disappearance of those industrial era jobs, the rug got pulled out from under that assumption. We replaced it with a new social contract by which a college degree, or at least some form of post-secondary credential, was a necessity for anyone hoping to make a decent living. The numbers on this are clear. According to census data, annual earnings for high-school dropouts average $18,900; for high-school graduates, $25,900; for college graduates, $45,400. Add up those numbers over a lifetime and the importance of education comes into focus.

And that’s if there is a job at all. Take a look at how hard the current recession has hit men. Of the jobs lost over the last four years 78% of them were held by men. That leaves 20% of working age men out of work. These jobs are not coming back and men are ill prepared for the 21st century workplace.

If you dig deeper and examine these trends for young men of color it will make you cry. At the Business Innovation Factory, our team has been working with the College Board to explore the experience of young men of color in the U.S. The statistics are staggering. Only 26% of African American, 18% of Latino American, and 24% of Native American and Pacific Islander young men ages 24-34 have attained at least an Associates Degree. BIF and the College Board are bringing the voice and experience of young men of color to the center of an innovation conversation on how to turn these disturbing trends around. You can watch a short video trailer about our ongoing work here.

We think equal progress will only come when the US has transformed its education system from a one-size-fits-all pipeline responding to the learning needs of all young men and women in the same way to an individualized approach where every student can find his or her own pathway. We must go from a system geared toward enrollment to one designed around the goal of completion.

In some way, we must turn schools into places that recognize the specific learning needs of young men and help them prepare for 21st century jobs – and we must do so urgently, or leave an entire generation foundering.

8 Responses to “Plight of Young Males”

  1. Fully agree with all of what you’ve noted here Saul…only one bit of feedback on this entry.

    You accurately (and bravely) lament that status of the gender gap re: women’s earnings and the like.

    In discussing that issue and then transitioning to the issue of the the lack of young men in post-secondary schools, when you use the word “however” you negate the value of what you’ve just said and that’s a disservice to both points that you’re making. May seem like a small thing; I think that these two issues are significant enough to not have that significance traded off of one another.

    With respect…KSD

  2. John Mack says:

    Wrong issue, wrong question.

    The real question to ask: Is it foolish to think you can build an economy with good wages and low unemployment strictly on the basis of having a college degree?

    I think not.

  3. Kent Healy says:

    I do think John has a point. Education is not necessarily the answer, but I think a degree is still better than no degree. At least today. I am a big proponent of massive ed reform, but Saul, you bring up some interesting thoughts and fact. I would love to know more about why males are not as interested in pursuing higher education.

    I am in a unique situation in that I have been in and out of college for 7 years due to two things:

    1) My interest in entrepreneurship. I get an idea and submerse myself into it by starting a business and creating self-sufficient systems and then return to the “classroom.”

    2) School is painfully boring to me. I don’t feel the value is there (for the time and monetary costs) and I get antsy and wish to pursue things outside of school. Thus, real world interludes seem to be a must to preserve my sanity.

    I am majoring in Comm at USC currently and it’s fair to estimate that about 70+&+% of the students in this major are women. Of course, this has something to do with the topic, but I wonder if it’s at all connected to some of the points and stats in this article. Or if males feel somewhat similar to me… trapped and anxious to “get on with things.” Not sure.

    Thanks for the food for thought.

    - Kent

  4. monika hardy says:

    along the lines of your post Saul, wondering if you caught Jacqueline’s TEDxWomen
    she hit on the same concerns, in it she says:
    monsters exist in all of us, but maybe it’s not monsters but the broken parts of ourselves, sadness, shame.
    she went on to say:
    no group is more vulnerable to those kinds of manipulations as young men – the most dangerous animal on the planet – the adolescent male.

    i tend to agree, the way we are doing school now isn’t suitable for many, but it seems more girls are willing to comply.

    i think John’s point is spot on. measuring success by college admission/attendance/degree has little correlation to success in life. in fact, it has more correlation to debt.

    i love learning. i think when people say: get a degree, they equate that with getting an education. and we end up focusing on a wrong fix. the world of learning has just opened up. ed’s potential is nothing like we are experiencing it.

    and to that end and what i love most – labels diminish. as Karen suggests, this is about all of us. just because some, say even more girls, are getting 4.0′s and finishing up, what does that mean? again – i think we are locking in a definition of success that misses the potential we can facilitate today.

    i’ll end with more of Jacqueline’s poignant words:
    we have it all wrong when we think income is the link, what we yearn for is to be visible to each other
    we need the audacity to believe – all men are created equal
    and the humility to believe – we can’t do it alone
    our lives are so short, and our time on this planet is so precious, and all we have is each other.

    warm regards…

  5. anony says:

    Are you kidding? Women’s rights have gone backwards since 1980. They still don’t have equal pay for equal work, are looked over for promotions and hiring–and if they’re over 50, they are invisible in society and work. Get a grip.

    Young men? Why aren’t they in college? Because they are making more money and learning more programming computers outside of school. That is where you will find them, building the applications that run on the latest platforms. They aren’t in college, because they don’t need it anymore to be successful and to learn.

  6. Jill Elswick says:

    What are the causes of the gender achievement gap? What kind of education or training do they need to be successful in the 21st century? We cannot afford to waste any talent.

  7. Chad Furey says:

    The gender discrepencies in achievement and enrollment are alarming, but I would argue this could be a result of many different things that gender may or may not play into. The benchmarks for achievement being the major factor.

    The lay-offs during the recession jumped out at me though. Almost 80% of the people that lost their jobs were men…But I got to thinking, wouldn’t that make sense (in a cost cutting economy) given that on average, men pull in larger salaries, and companies would rather make room for enthusiastic, grossly underpaid, young professionals like myself?

    In terms of the system as a whole, it’s flawed and everyone seems to agree. Standardized testing is, overall, a poor measure of a person’s ability to learn and positively impact society. Likewise, enrollment numbers are also a poor measure, especially in an economy where more and more people are turning to alternative solutions to a traditionally WALLETT BUSTING 4 year degree.

    I truly think online degrees will take off and level the playing field to some degree. In an environment where young professionals place a high value on time, due to working full time jobs as well as advancing their careers, the benefits of higher education through e-learning are obvious.

    In 2009 alone the online education sector grew 18% and 20% in previous years.(Shaq did it

    Just imagine when a legitimate standard of accredidation for online learning centers become socially acceptable as the Millenials grow older. Do you think Mark Zuckerberg will care where you went to school if you can hack into the Facebook privacy settings? I believe the words in the newsfeed read “you’re hired.”

    The coming generations will have to bite just as loud as they bark, and I think that is scary for a lot of people who see a degree as the only ticket to a higher salary. If I’m hiring I’m more concerned with whether or not you have the required skills and motivation to go above and beyond, and I’m less concerned with where you learned them. But that’s all good in theory…

    Great post Saul this is an interesting topic for debate!

  8. Jill Elswick says:


    I appreciate your comments, and I agree that online learning will grow. It has to. I think it will be more effective when traditional universities create “hybrid” programs that combine the efficiencies of online learning with the chance to meet in person to reinforce concepts and get some hands-on learning. See this article about hybrid programs from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

    I am enrolled in an M.S. media psychology program at Walden University. And, while it is convenient to take classes from home, it is a very demanding experience. It is a full-time endeavor to take two classes per quarter. I work part-time in addition to taking classes. I spend most of my time either at work or doing homework. The demands of the program are so high I am going to start taking only one class per quarter.

    I am pleased that the classes are demanding. They should be. I am learning a lot. However, the experience of getting a degree online is very, very isolating. Misunderstandings between students and professors are common, due to the text-based nature of the program and because Web site usability is horrid (HORRID). I am sure the e-learning delivery model will change and improve, but it has significant drawbacks. If traditional universities were to enter this market, I think they could have a lot of success, especially if they put their unique academic stamp on the program.


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