It's a long article, but I think it's worth it.
Sometimes, a single statistic tells a historic story. One of my favorites is that, last year, women were awarded 57 percent of all bachelor's degrees. In 1960, a not-so-distant past, their share was 35 percent. By 1980, the recipients were equally matched by sex.
What no one foresaw was that women's presence on campuses would continue to grow. In the 2002 processions, for every 100 women there were only 75 men. The U.S. Department of Education estimates there will be even fewer men this year, not only in percentage terms but also in absolute numbers.
That imbalance is already having an impact, and not only on campuses. The fallout is being felt in the larger society and in intimate relations. After all, a B.A. has become the nation's principal credential for professional positions, as well as an emblem of class and social standing. While it is not something we say openly, B.A.'s seldom consort with non-B.A.'s.
How did women reach that 57 percent? They have always had what it takes to be good students, and expanding opportunities over the last century have given them the chance to demonstrate that. More high-school girls than boys now take Advanced Placement tests, do A work, and are inducted into honor societies. As judged by the number taking the ACT, more girls are intending to head to college. Fewer are willing to be diffident about competing.
But it is equally important to ask what is happening with boys. A complicated range of socioeconomic factors is at work. A wag once described education from kindergarten through college as "17 years of sustained sitting," and some young boys, particularly where large class numbers preclude "active learning," are struggling with rote teaching styles and rigid authority structures. They may be less apt to listen carefully in class or heed how examination questions are worded. In the past, young men who went to college could get in and by with their C's; today, they face more competition -- from women, in particular, and from the growing number of students going to college in general -- and C's will land them entry-level jobs only at Costco and Home Depot.
Moreover, relative to women, the proportion of men who finish college has been falling for all ethnic groups. Once, men were given privileged status within some minority groups; today, Asian women now earn 53 percent of their group's undergraduate degrees, and the share for Hispanic women is 58 percent.
The real question is, What impact is all this having? It's amazing how much people tiptoe around that. We're warned about generalizing, about stereotyping, about hurting someone's feelings. To be sure, this is an area in which it is difficult to lay down hard-and-fast rules. Human behavior is never so simple. But it seems fair to ask how demographic changes are affecting our social and emotional lives.
An elemental issue in every society is how couples pair off. Anthropologists talk about the phenomenon of hypergamy, or the effort of people to "marry up." Recall all those movie plots where nurses set their eyes on interns, while secretaries fancied young executives. Indeed, a generation ago, in 1970, among husbands who had B.A.'s, 62 percent had wives with less education than they did. Today, the reverse is increasingly the case. According to the latest Census count, among married women ages 25 to 34 who have bachelor's degrees, 39 percent have husbands who haven't gotten that far.
The fact is that the B.A. gap is making, and is likely to continue to make, finding a mate of the opposite sex with an equal education more difficult for women. Not so long ago, when men outnumbered women in the college population and made up the majority on almost all coed campuses, college women had a choice of husbands or partners. In 1970, adding Brown, Cornell, Duke, Harvard, Penn, and Stanford
together, each 100 women they enrolled could pick from among 212 men. Today, at Brown and Cornell, women outnumber men, and at the others, the sex ratio is essentially even.
Note the Sex and the City foursome of young women, all of whom are college graduates and brainy and attractive. After five seasons of sustained searching, and many relationships, none has found a Mr. Right. Yes, the interests of keeping the plot going year after year undoubtedly have something to do with that, but what's expressed on the television show is also evidence of a cultural anxiety many feel.
As more and more women have experienced higher education, they have developed higher expectations about what they want from life. And that, certainly, is what we want to happen. However, those goals and ideals have also led them to set higher standards for dates and mates, even as fewer men are passing the tests. By contrast, when I first started teaching at Cornell a generation or so ago, all too many women would settle for very "average" guys, often getting engaged before graduating.
As it happens, the gender mismatch we are now observing had some parallels in the past, albeit on a smaller scale. Through the 1920s, marriage rates for graduates of women's colleges were well under the national norm. That was notable at colleges like Vassar, Wellesley, and Bryn Mawr, which urged their students toward serious careers in medicine, law, public service, and academe. (Indeed, M. Carey Thomas, Bryn Mawr's legendary president, once reportedly remarked, "Only our failures marry.") No doubt some women were put off by the prospect of married lives as Main Line matrons, preferring to end up as what their era called "spinsters." Of course, that term has disappeared, as has a presumption of celibacy. Even so, today's B.A. gap is likely to renew the link for women between higher education and remaining unmarried.
We keep reminding ourselves that college isn't merely about earning power and professional success. Years on a campus also have a cultural component. We hope that students will respond to demands on their intellect and imagination. However, the degree gap raises a possibility that, as more women pursue new interests, there will be a shortfall of men to share those interests with. Let's imagine a single, not atypical, case. At least a few single women would like their dates to join them while watching, say, a Henry James adaptation on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre. Not to mention discussing afterward the snares he sets for his characters. But audience surveys show that such women are likely to end up seeing it either alone or with female friends. Similar findings apply for classical-music concerts and art exhibitions. Perhaps that was ever so. But are college women increasingly going to have to settle for less in their relationships?
And what are the implications of all of this -- social, political, emotional? Commentators have already noted the growing gap in political attitudes between men and women on a range of issues. In 2000, for every 100 single women who voted for Al Gore, there were only 64 single men who had similar ballots. On gun ownership, for every 100 women who wanted more controls, only 69 men shared their views. Of course, couples can differ on issues. But will the growing gap in the numbers of men and women on campus further change differences in political attitudes? We can only speculate now, but it seems a question worth asking.
And what of the professions? Each year sees fewer domains remaining exclusive preserves of men. Between 1970 and 2000, women went from receiving 8.4 percent of medical degrees to 42.7 percent. In that period, they rose from 5.4 percent to 45.9 percent of law graduates, and from 3.6 percent to 39.8 percent of M.B.A.'s. Unquestionably, the sex ratios among those seeking advanced degrees will shape the pool of professionals in the generations ahead.
The issues raised don't just cover questions about marriage and family, which commentators across the political spectrum have been debating. There is a whole range of topics on which we could begin conducting research: For example, how will changes in the competitive scene affect social relationships? Working environments? Competition has always been the name of the American game; to be sure, not everyone can win on every occasion. In the past, however, men expected that they might be beaten out by other men. Increasingly, they will have to deal with the fact of losing to a woman. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that's a bad thing. Just that it will be different.
Of course, we also need much more discussion of the fact that, if more women are winning, most will pay a toll that is not often levied on successful men. As one current best seller puts it, I Don't Know How She Does It. At issue is not just getting support in keeping home and family and job all going, but getting psychological support as well, with cheering and consoling and commiserating from an intimate to cushion the strains of careers.
It should not be surprising that 90 percent of men who head colleges are married. (Many of the rest are priests at Catholic schools.) But even as the number of female presidents has doubled in recent years, a revealing fact is that only 57 percent of them are married. The Census has comparable data on earnings. Among Americans whose earnings exceed $100,000 -- predominantly a college-educated stratum -- 83 percent of the men are currently married, but only 58 percent of the women are.
No, the United States is not becoming a matriarchy. Thus far, testosterone seems alive and well. Ninety-nine percent of the top 500 corporations are still headed by men. Nor have there been basic changes in the ways in which organizations work. Rather, women who aspire to move ahead are still expected to follow male models, and most have done so with aplomb.
What is new is the number of men who will not have the power and positions their fathers had, and it remains to be seen how they will adapt to a subordinate status. Just as troubling is the unwillingness of young men to continue on to college and to gain the competencies a new century will require and expect. It is almost as if many are surrendering while barely in their teens.
Does this amount to what Christina Hoff Sommers has branded a "war against boys"? (For a while, the University of Georgia gave all its male applicants extra points, to augment their numbers on the campus.) No, I don't think we can say that boys are being shortchanged. After all, women are no longer being given preference in college admissions. If they were, lawyers would surely have filed suit on the behalf of men who felt they were displaced. So it's not as if there has been a planned strategy, fomented by feminists or some other wily group. Rather, girls and women have found there are opportunities for their talents and skills, and they are taking advantage of the openings. Nor can it be shown that law or medicine or business or other professions have had to lower their bars to let women in. What can be said with more certainty is that the college gap has widened a chasm between the sexes, and that's a portentous shift which was never foreseen when the goal was simply that everyone have a chance to show their true talents.