This week many of our teenagers headed on to higher education. And as they entered those hallowed halls of learning, they may have noticed that one thing seemed to be in short supply: men.
Why are men opting out of college?
A friend of mine attended the University of Guelph for a semester before returning home to start a successful agricultural business. It wasn’t that he couldn’t handle the academics; it was that he hated the environment. He was a hunter, an outdoorsman, a man’s man. He didn’t fit in well with what he called the “politically correct” atmosphere, so he left.
He’s not alone.
A recent survey in the United States found that for every 100 males on university campuses there are now 135 females. In Canada the story is virtually the same, as females constitute 60% of the undergraduate population, and two thirds of medical students. Of course, women aren’t overrepresented in all areas. In maths and sciences men still rule, as they do in most graduate programs. But the trends are certainly tilting towards female dominance.
Perhaps one reason fewer men are at university is because they don’t need to be.
Many trades that attract mostly men—like plumbing, contracting, or electrical work—pay more than many degree-required jobs, and come with the added bonus of no student loans. Perhaps university just isn’t very attractive for many men when other options, which aren’t as readily available to women, do exist. After all, my friend has just sold his second business, becoming a very successful man while he’s barely in his thirties.
Our universities, though, have not woken up to the new demographic reality. Much of campus life is still geared to helping women. Most universities have women’s studies departments, women’s health units, women’s clubs, women’s awareness sessions, women’s support groups, and women’s hotlines. What they don’t seem to have is anything to help men. In fact, if men started a “men’s support group” that didn’t have to do with teaching men not to rape women, it would be the subject of student editorials for months. It’s just not done.
This seems to be a strange aberration in Canadian society. Usually, whenever groups are underrepresented, we try to reach out to them. We start scholarships, mentorships, or special programs. The only thing I can conclude from the lack of pro-male initiatives is that to the universities, it really doesn’t matter that men are missing.
In the long run, though, is male underrepresentation best for the country? And is it best for the universities? Will they prove themselves relevant if 50% of the population is no longer interested in pursuing their degrees?
And what about women? Even in our more rural communities, many of our girls still aspire to university education. Since most women choose as spouses those who have as much education as they do, what will their options be as this pool shrinks? Does going to university mean putting oneself in a romantic black hole?
We need to start treating this as a serious problem and asking why men are opting out.
A lot of it has to do with the way we are teaching—or failing to teach—our boys. But I think university culture is also a large part of it. I spent seven years at Queen’s, and I cringe to remember it now. It took me years after graduation to come back to the real world and realize that, despite what I was taught—and indeed, what I taught undergraduates during my last three years—all sex is not rape, marriage is not an oppressive institution, and children actually do need their parents. These are basic values that most Canadians, and especially those who live outside the big cities, share. But they are not the values that are found on our campuses.
I think it’s time for the university, and the education establishment, to get its head out of the sand and realize that it is not women who are on the losing end of the education game, but men who are instead opting out. When women were on the losing end, we demanded that we balance the scales. Will we give men the same courtesy?
This column first appeared September 1, 2006.
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