By Thomas R. McDaniel, PhD
Last month, John McDaniel (my twin brother) addressed the “new event” in higher education: declining male enrolment and disappearing men’s colleges. Where are the boys? he asked. He noted that there are now only three four-year all-male colleges in the United States. He and I graduated from one, Hampden-Sydney, whose bumper sticker reads: “Where Men are Men and Women are Guests.” We also taught in an all-male public high school and in rival all-male prep schools in Baltimore. So we know something about men’s education and lament not only its near demise but also the disappearing male presence on coed campuses. Ironically, for the last 35 years I have been a professor and administrator at an all-female college, one of only 60 or so still in existence in the country. But enough history.
The issue I address in this month’s essay is the other side of John’s “hesitant Hamlets” conundrum: How are women faring in today’s college climate? Is it still a “chilly” one, as Hall and Sandler declared in 1982? Actually, the climate has warmed up considerably, with women now coming into their own in academe.
Consider these startling research findings regarding today’s female college students. They
- have been growing in numbers and as a percentage of total undergraduate students for more than two decades and now constitute a majority;
- are more likely than their male peers to hold high educational aspirations and to graduate;
- perceive their coed campus to be less supportive of their academic and social needs than is the case for male counterparts; and
- continue to be underrepresented in positions of student leadership on coed campuses.
Now, because 98 percent of women are in coed institutions (a fact that also reflects the sharp decline of single-gender colleges for both women and men), we might ask: How do women fare in all-women colleges?
Here the research is equally interesting. In single-gender colleges, female students
- fill all the leadership positions in student government and other student organizations (of course);
- develop (logically enough) more leadership skills than coed women do (20 percent of women in Congress and 30 percent of a Business Week list of rising women stars in corporate America are women’s college graduates, while only about 2 percent of all women graduates come from such colleges);
- report greater gains in self-understanding and ability to work effectively with others than do women in coed institutions; and
- display better quantitative and science competencies than do women in coed colleges and universities.
So, where are the girls? Perhaps more should be in women’s colleges, but instead they are, overwhelmingly, in coed institutions, “where the boys are.”
Even there, they are beginning to predominate in numbers and performance. Average grades in college courses for women, even math and science courses, are higher than those achieved by men. It may be, as John suggests, that coed institutions should consider inducements to lure “hesitant” young men to their campuses. The chick magnet does not seem to be working. Neither are curriculum options. Perhaps boys would rather join the military, go directly into the workforce, or find other alternatives that free them from their female competitors now in ascendancy.
Here is an idea: Maybe coed colleges should look to “where the girls are” in women’s colleges and learn why this single-gender environment is so powerful in educating today’s rising stars: women. Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery.
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Thomas R. McDaniel is a professor of education, senior vice president, and acting dean of graduate studies at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C. Contact him at Tom.McDaniel@Converse.edu.