On college campuses, female undergraduates have outnumbered men and outperformed them academically for years, but a new report out Tuesday finds those gaps have stopped growing in key areas including enrollment and bachelor's degrees.
One notable exception is young Hispanic men — especially new immigrants — who are falling further behind Hispanic women.
Men account for 43 percent of overall college enrollment and earn 43 percent of bachelor's degrees — figures that have remained consistent since the early 2000s.
However, the analysis by the Washington-based American Council on Education shows the disparity lies largely in the fact that men are much less likely than women to go to college — or return to college — later in life: Undergraduate men age 25 or older are outnumbered by women in the same age group 2-to-1.
"Traditional" students who head directly to college from high school are split between the genders. Men still lead in the number of PhD and MD degrees awarded, while the genders are about even in graduate programs in law and business administration.
"Why are men less likely than women to enter (or re-enter) higher education later in life?" researcher Jacqueline King, the author of the study, asked. "Perhaps the higher salaries that men of all education levels continue to command in the labor market depress enrollments, or men are less willing to reduce the amount they work (and earn) in order to pursue higher education, but additional research is needed."
There is disagreement about the causes of the college gender gap, the extent of the problem and what should be done about it. While some scholars and experts argue that earning disparities provide financial greater incentive for women to attend college, others claim schools systems biased against boys leave them are unprepared for college.
Still others caution that whatever the problems facing men as a whole, attention ought to be focused on minority and poor men who face the greatest challenges.
After decades of discrimination and exclusion from many campuses, women became the majority on college campuses after 1978, an outgrowth of the women's rights movement and a drop-off in male enrollment after the end of the Vietnam era.
By 1990, the female-male breakdown was 55 percent to 45 percent. The gap widened to 57 percent to 43 percent in 2003 and has been frozen there since, according to the report.
A similar leveling off has taken place with undergraduate degrees. The last time men and women were on even footing in earning bachelor's degrees was 1980. The gender gap kept growing until it had tilted in favor of women 57 percent to 43 percent in 2000-2001 — and has held steady there since.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the recession is pushing more men back to school — community colleges have reported gains in male enrollment — which could narrow the gender gap, King said.
Among the report's other findings:
— The percentage of Hispanic undergraduates 24 or younger who are male fell from 45 percent in 1999-2000 to 42 percent in 2007-2008. Only half of young adults who are Hispanic immigrants completed high school, and less than 10 percent earned a bachelor's degree.
— Among undergraduates 24 and younger, the gender gap is widest among African-Americans: 59 percent female to 41 percent male in 2007-2008. However, the gap has narrowed since 1995-1996, when it was 63-37.
— Although the number of degrees awarded to white and Hispanic men are rising, they are not earning degrees at a higher rate because the gains aren't keeping up with population growth.
School officials are limited in what they can do to narrow the gap because anti-discrimination laws restrict public schools and most private schools that accept federal dollars from considering gender as an admissions factor.
The U.S. Civil Rights Commission is investigating whether private liberal arts colleges in the Washington, D.C., area are discriminating against women in an effort to better balance their enrollments.
Linda Sax, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, said attention should focus on preparing and attracting low-income African-American and Latino men to college, given their historic under-representation.
"At the same time, we must acknowledge the fact that women continue to comprise the majority of low-income and first-generation college students and remain underrepresented in traditionally male fields like engineering and computer science," said Sax, author of "The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Developmental Potential of Women and Men." "Their needs ought not be overlooked."