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CLARENCE PAGE: Why the paucity of men on campus is a problem

You can learn a lot about social changes by looking at one yardstick in particular: the shifting male-female ratio in college enrollment.

For example, in 1970 men outnumbered women on campus, accounting for 57 percent in four-year institutions and 59 percent of undergraduate enrollment in two-year institutions, according to the nonprofit National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

A lot of us took that gender imbalance for granted — until 1973 when the Vietnam War drew down, eliminating the reason a lot of my classmates had come to college in the first place.

Still, that gender trend for a few years outlasted the war. By 1980, gender was perfectly balanced in four-year colleges, and women outnumbered men in two-year schools, 55 percent to 45 percent.

Fast forward to today, and the script is flipped. Men are turning away from higher education at an enormous rate. At the close of the 2020-21 academic year, women made up 59.5 percent of college students and men 40.5 percent, an all-time high imbalance.

In that academic year, U.S. colleges and universities had 1.5 million fewer students compared with five years ago, and men accounted for 71 percent of the decline.

What’s going on? A lot of very smart academicians have been asking what’s causing the trend — and, indeed, whether it’s really a problem at all.

We’ve heard some of these questions before. Are girls receiving preferential treatment in high school while boys are allowed to slip through the cracks? Did recent changes in SAT scoring give an unexpected edge to female test-takers? Are college admissions to blame?

With male enrollment “falling behind remarkably fast,” as one scholar put it, some schools are considering ways to enroll more men. But as much as campuses already face an abundance of touchy issues — including sexual assault, political protests, and racial and gender equity — I don’t expect a lot of attention to be devoted to recruiting more men.

Some experts worry about the broader societal consequences. Scott Galloway, a best-selling author and marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, asserts this gender imbalance is creating what he calls a “mating gap.”

“We have mating inequality in this country,” he said, pointing to the popularity of dating apps such as Tinder that offer users a choice of potential dates by swiping left or right on their smartphone screens.

“Today’s relationships come from swiping,” Galloway said. “A fourth of men say economic viability is what counts in a mate compared to three-fourths of women who say the same.”

Half of dating relationships begin online, he said, compared to 1 in 4 just a few years ago — and the competition in online self-promotion is stiff. Large numbers just get left out in the cold.

At worst, Galloway said, we’re producing many of “what may be the most dangerous person in the world — the young, broke and alone man.”

At worst, that’s the profile of a mass killer, as we have seen in many tragic cases.

But troubling cases don’t have to be that extreme to justify more research and other actions, including partnerships with universities and online companies. Universities can develop outreach programs to help students adjust to campus life beyond their screens — and they can inform adult leaders at how much the world of personal communications has changed.

As one of the Harvard co-authors of a new book called “Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (and Adults Are Missing)” put it, interviewing 3,500 teens “made us rethink our assumptions.” We could use more of that. Even the smartest academics can’t assume to know what it’s like to be a young person today.

Contact Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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