Men Drop Out of College But the Gender Pay Gap Persists

The Wall Street Journal reports that three-fourths of the pandemic-driven college dropouts in the United States were men. These numbers would seem to depict a crisis for men that predicts lower future earning power. If the earnings for men are going down, does that mean the gender wage gap will close? For many reasons, the answer appears to be no. Kevin Carey of the New York Times explains some of the reasons why the gender wage gap persists—and why men in the United States, in general, are not in a pandemic-driven education crisis:

  • The gender imbalance in college enrollment and graduation is not new. Carey notes that women’s enrollment in college surged during the 1970s, but “women have outnumbered men on campus since the late 1970s. . . . The numbers haven’t changed much in recent decades.”
  • Male enrollment in public and private nonprofit four-year colleges dropped more from 2018 to 2019—before the pandemic—than from 2019 to 2020.
  • The raw numbers do not take into account that some college degrees are worth more than others. For example, men still dominate in fields like technology and engineering, which offer some of the highest salaries.
  • There are still some good-paying jobs available to men without college degrees, but there are relatively few for women.
  • Many female-dominated jobs don’t pay well.
  • As women overcome obstacles and move into male-dominated fields, the pay usually goes down in those fields.
  • Data reflects a class difference: students from higher socioeconomic classes are less likely to drop out of college.
  • Last year, women were less likely than men to leave community college despite their disproportionate responsibility for caregiving and domestic work during the pandemic.
  • There is structural admissions discrimination by selective colleges that do not want a gender imbalance in their enrollment. While women apply to colleges in larger numbers than men, their applications are often rejected to maintain a gender balance. Carey cites a dean of admissions at Kenyon College as saying, “Once you become decidedly female in enrollment, fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive.”

Carey points out that the gender pay gap has been persistent despite the higher levels of enrollment and graduation from college by women for decades. Obviously, the problem is not just about whether or not you have a college degree. The problem is about societal attitudes about work and family, discriminatory policies and procedures that limit women’s access, and the lack of affordable childcare.

Just today, my cousin called to tell me how surprised she was when a woman plumber showed up at her door today to fix a plumbing problem in her house. The fact that it is still so unusual to see a woman plumber says a lot about what we consider “women’s work” versus “men’s work.” We still have a long way to go to even this playing field.


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