Should the male and female college experience differ?

The gap between males and females at all levels of educational attainment paints a pretty clear picture. Males complete high school at lower rates than females. Of those who finish high school, males enroll in college at lower rates than females. This pattern continues in college, where men complete college at lower rates than women. Of course, some part of the gap in college enrollment is a function of the gap in high school completion, and some part of the gap in college completion is a function of the gap in college enrollment. But overall, it still seems apparent that something troubling is going on with boys and young men in terms of educational attainment. Yet, looking solely at these outcome snapshots does very little to help us figure out what we might do if we were going to reverse these trends.

A few weeks ago, I dug into some interesting aspects of the differences in our own male and female enrollment patterns at Augustana, because understanding the complexity of the problem is a necessary precursor to actually solving it. In addition, last year I explored some differences between men and women in their interest in social responsibility and volunteering behaviors. Today, I’d like to share a few more differences that we see between male and female seniors in their responses to senior survey questions about their experience during college.

Below I’ve listed four of the six senior survey questions that specifically address aspects of our students’ co-curricular experience. In each case, there are five response options ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5). Each of the differences shown below between male and female responses is statistically significant.

  • My out-of-class experiences have helped me connect what I learned in the classroom with real-life events.
    • Men     –    3.86
    • Female –    4.17
  • My out-of-class experiences have helped me develop a deeper understanding of myself.
    • Men     –    4.10
    • Female –    4.34
  • My out-of-class experiences have helped me develop a deeper understanding of how I interact with someone who might disagree with me.
    • Men     –    4.00
    • Female –    4.28
  • My co-curricular involvement helped me develop a better understanding of my leadership skills.
    • Men     –    4.14
    • Female –    4.35

On one hand, we can take some comfort in noting that the average responses in all but one case equate with “agree.” However, when we find a difference across an entire graduating class that is large enough to result in statistical significance we need to take, at the very least, a second look.

Why do you think these differences are appearing in our senior survey data? Is it just a function of the imprecision that comes with survey data? Maybe women tend to respond in rosier terms right before graduation than men? Or maybe there really is something going on here that we need to address. One way to test that possibility is to ask whether or not there might be other evidence that corroborates these findings, be it anecdotal or otherwise qualitative. Certainly, the prior evidence I’ve noted and linked above should count some, but that data also comes from senior survey data.

Recent research on boys and young men seems to suggest that these differences in our data may not be a surprise (check out the books Guyland (I found a free pdf of the book!) and Angry White Men or a Ted Talk by Philip Zimbardo for a small sample of the scholarship on men’s issues). This growing body of scholarship also suggests that differences that we might see between males and females begin to emerge long before college, but it also suggests that we are not powerless to reverse some of the disparity.

At the board meetings this weekend, we will be talking about some of these issues. In the meantime, what do you think? And if you think that these differences in our data ought to be taken seriously, does it mean that we ought to construct educationally appropriate variations in the college experience for men and women?

I’d love to read what you think as you chew on this.

Make it a good day,


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