Women Continue to Outnumber Men in College Completion

November 19, 2021 · Updated on November 23, 2021

Women Continue to Outnumber Men in College Completion
Data Studies
Photo by Barry Austin Photography / The Image Bank / Getty Images

  • Since the 1990s, women have earned college degrees at higher rates than men.
  • In recent years, the gender gap in college completion has only widened.
  • Men are more likely to drop out and avoid enrollment altogether.
  • Despite this, women are still underrepresented in high-paying jobs.

There's a serious gender gap in higher education. And according to new findings from Pew Research Center, this gap only continues to widen. Women increasingly outpace men in college graduation and enrollment rates. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, women accounted for nearly 60% of all college students by the end of the 2020-2021 academic year.

Women's rise in education can be easily explained by the passage of Title IX in 1972, the promotion of gender equality in education since then, and gains made in labor force participation over the last few decades. However, the reasons behind the dwindling number of men in education aren't as clear.

According to the Wall Street Journal, men are dropping out of school at extremely high rates and have accounted for 71% of the enrollment decline at colleges and universities over the last five years. The continuation of this trend could have lasting impacts on the future workforce, as educational attainment directly correlates to employment outcomes.

Despite the noteworthy rise in women in education over the last 40 years, the gender wage gap persists. Women are still significantly underrepresented in high-paying jobs and executive-level positions.

How Many Men and Women Have Bachelor's Degrees?

Of the more than 2 million bachelor's degrees conferred by U.S. postsecondary institutions during the 2018-2019 academic year, 57% were awarded to women.

Women have accounted for over 50% of degree holders for more than 20 years now. This percentage is steadily increasing. Should the trend continue, says the Wall Street Journal, over the next few years two women will earn a college degree for every man.

In addition to earning more degrees than men, women generally have better four-year, five-year, and six-year college completion rates. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), just about 40% of men who enrolled in a four-year college in 2013 graduated after four years compared to nearly 50% of women. The completion gap between men and women who graduated within six years was narrower, though women still took the lead.

Despite low rates of enrollment, graduation, and completion, men are actually more likely to be enrolled in college today than they were in the past when they were the majority of college students. NCES reports that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, just prior to women's rise in college enrollment, 26-29% of 18- to 24-year old males were enrolled in college. In 2019, 37% of 18- to 24-year old males were enrolled at postsecondary institutions.

Most Common Reasons Men Don't Graduate

Among all individuals who have chosen not to obtain degrees, lack of affordability was the primary driver for deciding against it. Factors like lack of desire or necessity, and other, more pressing responsibilities also contributed to the decision not to pursue a degree.

Men were more likely than women to report they "just didn't want to" get a degree or that a degree was not necessary for the job or career they wanted to pursue.Women, however, were slightly more likely to credit affordability concerns as a reason why they did not continue their education.

This comes as no surprise as women, on average, are known to hold more college debt than men. They also make higher monthly payments toward that debt despite earning less. While affordability is a top concern for all students, the impacts of debt on women stand out.

Despite Increased Education Rates, Wage Gap is Still Present for Women

Though women have earned degrees at higher rates than men for at least four decades, women still earn significantly less than men. As The New York Times reported, when more women join a previously male-dominated field, pay in that field declines rather than staying the same regardless of who fills the positions.

There has been some narrowing of the gender pay gap over the last few years, but progress has been slow, almost stagnant at times. At current rates, the wage gap is not expected to close until 2059.

With so much time until this gap closes and no idea what impact the lessening number of men in education will have on it, there is a cause for concern about the future of the workforce for both men and women.