In All Kinds of Communities, a Growing Gender Gap in College Enrollment

by Dante Chinni July 05, 2023

Since 2000, the percentage of Americans with a bachelor’s degree has climbed almost 10 points, but the growth has not been even across the population. Over the past years a gender divide has developed around the issue, and over the last decade the percentage of women with a degree has surpassed the figure for men.

The numbers for current college enrollment indicate the gender gap is only going to grow and viewed through the lens of the American Communities Project’s 15 community types, the gap could become a chasm in much of the country.

To look at this issue, the ACP used the latest college enrollment figures from the Census American Community Survey. The data showed a 12-point gap between the number of women and the number of men in the college population — 56% female to 44% male.

But broken into the ACP types, some of the gaps were much bigger.

From Rural to Urban

Most notable in the ACP analysis are the rural, sparsely populated Aging Farmlands. In those counties, 62% of the college enrolled population was female, compared to just 38% male — a gap of 24 percentage points. But even in more urban communities with higher percentages of college degrees — the Urban Suburbs and Exurbs — the gaps are wide, 10 points and 12 points respectively.

That finding may be something of a surprise. While farming communities have long offered the option of good-paying, non-degree jobs, especially for men, lucrative jobs in suburban and exurban areas — office and management positions — often revolve around college degrees. In the future that may mean men are locked out of those positions, or that, perhaps, educational requirements for them may change. Some companies and state governments have already removed degree requirements from jobs.

In the Youth Bastions

When looking at the other types, the gap in College Towns, eight points, was smaller than the national figure, but still quite high. Those communities hold all sorts of college settings, big and public as well as smaller and private. They are home to many of the best-known schools in the country, and the eight-point gap suggests that the gender divide is not just about the differences at smaller less-known institutions.

The LDS Enclaves are noteworthy because the gap was smaller there than in any of the other ACP types. The tighter gender split may be because those communities tend to value education and are more traditional in terms of their gender roles.

Changing Social Norms

The larger takeaway from these data, however, concerns the future.

Historically, women have often wanted to marry men from the same or a higher socioeconomic stratum. Data already suggest that has gotten more difficult, but these numbers indicate that difficulty is only going to intensify, particularly in some of the ACP types.

If the trends outlined here continue, it seems likely that old social norm is in for a change, or there may be fewer marriages. When you see gaps of 20 percentage points, the laws of supply and demand seem likely to dictate change.

Political Implications

There also could be political impacts in the long term. In recent years political conservatives and Republicans have turned sour on college while the data show those with a college degree are increasingly likely to vote Democratic.

These data suggest that over the long term the divide along gender lines could widen across the United States, but particularly in rural communities where the gender-education gaps are especially wide. If that happens, the gender gap in elections could grow markedly in rural communities, impacting how candidates campaign and message in those places.

Vol. 3 2020-2021

Deaths of Despair Across America

The American Communities Project is undertaking a 30-month study of Deaths of Despair in its 15 community types.

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