Last February I went to a community college in Arizona to deliver some lectures about Afghanistan. Every classroom I visited had about 20 women and 10 or fewer men. I wanted to know what this was about: Were my topics keeping men away? Had extra women flocked in from other classes? Was it my movie-star good looks?
The professor shook her head. None of the above, she declared. "You're simply looking at the demographic reality of today's colleges. A lot more women are signing up than men. We don't know why, but these days, young men are tending to go right into the workforce after high school. They want to start earning money and don't feel they need college. It's a concern."
Her revelation reminded me of something. After a column I wrote recently about the benefits of college, I got a spate of e-mails from men disputing my assertions. They claimed they had gotten perfectly good jobs without college. One was a chef. Another was a car mechanic. Both were making more money than classmates who had opted for college. Another said he was making less, but he wasn't carrying a load of debt, either. He figured he'd use the money he might have spent paying back college loans to invest in real estate and thus come out ahead in the end.
These were not aimless slackers who skipped college 'cause they forgot to apply. These fellows made a deliberate and considered choice not to go.
College admissions experts have been aware of this trend for some years now. I'm told unofficially that they've been casting about for ways to attract more male applicants. That's right: affirmative action for men. You'll never hear the phrase spoken out loud, of course, but the buzz is there.
Look at the numbers
Women first outnumbered men in colleges and universities in the mid-1970s. By 1997, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, this country's total college population stood at 44 percent male, 56 percent female.
In the 1990s, the number of B.A.s earned by men rose by 8 percent. The number earned by women rose by 28 percent. In that same decade, the number of men enrolled in graduate programs went up 22 percent, but the number of women increased 66 percent. The number of part-time college students went up 1 percent among males, and 17 percent among females.
Since 1997, the trend has only accelerated. By 2009, predicts the National Center for Education Statistics, the male-to-female ratio within the college population will reach 39 to 61 percent.
Wow. The downstream consequences of this demographic reality seem obvious to me. After all, research unrelated to gender proclaims the following formula quite definitively:
More College = More Money + More Power.
If that's true, 30 years from now women will be making most of the money and they'll be running society.
That would certainly mark a turning point for civilization. Despite Greek legends about Amazons and anthropological reports of the occasional matriarchal tribe such as the Iroquois, no major society in recorded history has seen true parity of money and power between men and women. The United States would be the first.
On the other hand ...
Women have outnumbered men in college for almost 40 years now, yet they still earn about 75 cents for every dollar earned by men in comparable jobs. Obviously there's a gap between what college enables and what society allows.
Personally, I think that gap can't last. Still, social change is a tricky business. Cause-and-effect predictions are difficult because dozens of causes, most of them hidden, operate in every situation.
For example, studies show that high-status women prefer to date even higher-status men. Guys who skipped college in their youth might swell the herds heading back to school in middle age. You know--just so they can get dates.
And there's another monkey wrench rattling around in the works. When people talk about all the extra money and power a college degree can get you, they're mostly talking about technical or business degrees--about scientists and engineers. Or they're comparing the earnings of business executives who have M.B.A.s versus those who don't.
Women, despite their enthusiasm for college, are not going into technical fields. They earn, for example, only 20 percent of the engineering degrees conferred in this country each year. And they're way underrepresented in M.B.A. programs.
Closing two gaps with one blow
That famous engineering gap between the United States and certain Asian countries, the source of so much handwringing in the United States, may simply boil down to a gender gap within this country. Close the second gap and the first may disappear.
In other words, maybe we can't end our engineer shortage by pouring thousands of new science and math teachers into classrooms where half the students have no interest in science or math. Those kids won't get interested just because they're surrounded by teachers throwing homework at them.
We might do better to explore strategies for getting girls interested in hard science at an early age. Do certain instructional strategies work better with girls than boys? Do we need more mentoring programs? Or more role models? Perhaps we should coax female engineers out of the field and into education. Maybe we need TV shows about heroic female engineers. Agent 00101001. License to Drill (for oil). Software Barbie? (I'm just thinking out loud.)
The point is to draw more females into technical fields--not drive, herd, or force them, but draw them in, lure them in, intrigue them in, inspire them in. If we do, demographics might yet prove to be that force that transforms society.