Women now earn the majority of diplomas in fields men used to dominate — from biology to business — and have caught up in pursuit of law, medicine and other advanced degrees.
Even with such enormous gains over the past 25 years, women are paid less than men in comparable jobs and lag in landing top positions on college campuses.
Federal statistics released Thursday show that in many ways, the gender gap among college students is widening. The story is largely one of progress for women, stagnation for men.
Women earn the majority of bachelor's degrees in business, biological sciences, social sciences and history. The same is true for traditional strongholds such as education and psychology.
In undergraduate and graduate disciplines where women trail men, they are gaining ground, earning larger numbers of degrees in math, physical sciences and agriculture.
"Women are going in directions that maybe their mothers or grandmothers never even thought about going," said Avis Jones-DeWeever, who oversees education policy for the Institute of Women's Policy Research.
"We're teaching girls that they need to be able to explore every opportunity that they are interested in. It's good to see that is happening," she said.
The findings were part of a 379-page report, "The Condition of Education," a yearly compilation of statistics that give a picture of academic trends.
Women now account for about half the enrollment in professional programs such as law, medicine and optometry. That is up from 22 percent a generation ago.
The number of women enrolled in undergraduate classes has grown more than twice as fast as it has for men. Women outnumber men on campus by at least 2 million, and the gap is growing.
In business, by far the most popular degree field among undergraduates, women earn slightly more than half of all bachelor degrees; it was one-third in 1980.
"You have a large number of women in the administrative work force, and in the past, they were never able to be the managers and the vice presidents," said Claire Van Ummersen of the American Council on Education. "Now they have those opportunities, and they are taking advantage of them. They can be something other than an administrative assistant."
The U.S. population is 51 percent female, the same as it was three decade ago. Yet legal and cultural barriers have fallen during that time, creating opportunities for women, experts say.
Women also have become savvy about boosting their income for themselves and their families by recognizing the value of advanced degrees, Jones-DeWeever said.
Women who work full time earn about 76 percent as much as men, according to the Institute of Women's Policy Research. Women are underrepresented in full-time faculty jobs, particularly in fields such as physical sciences, engineering and math.
"We clearly have a long way to go," said Van Ummersen, vice president for the council's Center for Effective Leadership. She said some universities are replacing retiring professors, giving women a chance to move into tenured positions.
The enrollment of men in professional degree programs is declining.
"There's every reason to celebrate the success of women. And one has to be concerned about what's happening with men," said Russ Whitehurst, director of the Institute of Education Sciences, a research arm of the Education Department.
Researchers say that men, for different reasons, are not enrolling in or completing college programs with the same urgency as women.
One reason is a failure by schools to teach boys well at an early age, leading to frustration by high school. A second is a recognition by young men that they can land, if only temporarily, some decent-paying jobs without a college degree.
Boys need to have their aspirations raised just as girls have, said Tom Mortenson, senior scholar for The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. By middle school, he said, many boys are tuning out and the problem is only getting worse.
"Women have been making educational progress, and the men are stuck," he said. "They haven't just fallen behind women. They have fallen behind changes in the job market."