This fall, I heard a question I had never encountered before in my work helping low-income women to graduate from college: “Is this job still necessary?” “
The question was raised in response to alarming reports of falling college enrollment rates among men during the pandemic, including a viral Wall Street Journal hasitem with a striking statistic: 19% more women than men were enrolled in university by the end of the 2020-21 academic year.
At the end of October, the National Student Clearinghouse reported whereas enrollment in the men’s college has continued to decline this school year; it has now fallen 9.3% in total since fall 2019, compared to a drop of 5.3% for women.
Of course, there are grounds for worrying about the drop in the enrollment rate for men. The fallout from the pandemic is exacerbating a gender disparity in college attendance that has existed since 1980s. But it would be a serious mistake to interpret the widening gender gap at the college level as evidence that women essentially head towards graduation once they begin a post-secondary program.
For women from Black, Hispanic, Native and low-income communities, an associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree is far from a certainty.
Related: An unnoticed result of the decline of men in college: it is more difficult for women to enter
As attention shifted to understanding the declining enrollment of men, policymakers, legislators and higher education administrators face three specific challenges that discourage women from applying to college, force them to leave once they have started or prevent them from making full use of their degrees. .
First, the inability to pay for food, shelter, and other basic needs is one of the biggest barriers to completing college for low-income women as the pandemic continues. Research in the years leading up to the pandemic demonstrated that the high cost of basic necessities – food, shelter, health care, transportation – can derail a promising academic career as quickly as unpaid tuition fees.
While insecurity of basic needs threatens students regardless of their gender, a National Post-Secondary Student Assistance Study 2019-2020 The impact of the pandemic on undergraduates has revealed that women have more difficulty than men accessing or paying for food and finding stable and safe child care.
Female students also reported more financial disruption than their male peers (although the highest proportion of financial disruption was reported by students who identified themselves as gender nonconforming, gender, or different identities).
Higher education policy makers, legislators and administrators face three specific challenges that discourage women from applying to university, compel them to leave once they have started, or prevent them from making full use of their opportunities. diplomas.
A recent to study City University of New York (CUNY) students found female students suffered from anxiety and depression and expressed a higher need for mental health support during the pandemic than men; As with other basic needs, the struggle to find affordable health care, including counseling, can hamper academic progress.
Any school seeking to recruit and retain women from low-income backgrounds must have a strategy, such as a vigorous emergency aid program and support for students applying for government benefits (e.g. SNAP), to ease the burden of non-academic expenses.
Second, the pandemic has exacerbated the extraordinary challenges facing parents of students, 70% of whom are women. Of the 3.8 million students who were parents of children under the age of 18 in 2016 (the most recent year for which national data is available), 2.7 million were mothers, of which 1.7 million were million single mothers, the Women’s Policy Research Institute reports.
This is a financially insecure group at the best of times; parenthood students have among the highest rates of insecurity of basic needs and often need more time to graduate while facing the additional costs of childcare.
While it is not yet known how many mothers halted their degree programs during the pandemic or postponed their plans to graduate, even a small number of thwarted college careers will have a negative ripple effect on entire families.
Reversing the pandemic trend of on-campus daycare closures and providing more affordable, high-quality child care options will be key to retaining student parents, as will strengthening campus cultures. more inclusive of students with children.
Third, wage inequalities and student debt hamper women’s economic mobility. Women with a bachelor’s degree earn 74 cents for every dollar earned by a man with the same credentials. To pay iniquity is even greater for black and Hispanic women.
One of the factors contributing to this pay gap is the under-representation of women in major that lead to jobs with higher wages, such as engineering and IT.
Additionally, women hold two-thirds of student loan debt, with black women holding the highest average total, the AAUW reports.
Add to the mix the challenges that first generation students (who become first generation professionals) face in negotiating salaries and finding jobs that reflect their education, and the real promise of college degrees becomes elusive.
If economic mobility is among the highest goals of a college degree, then we need to consider women’s graduation rates in the context of their post-secondary outcomes.
That so many women have persisted in college despite these challenges is testament to their belief that a degree is the best way to improve their lives and that of their families. But this belief cannot be taken for granted, especially at the end of a pandemic that has particularly affected women in care positions.
Strategies to reverse the decline in male college enrollment must be developed alongside, not at the expense, policies that pay special attention to female students. Failure to do so will hamper the overall goals of giving more people access to better paying jobs and training a workforce to meet the needs of the nation.
Rona Sheramy, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Jewish Foundation for Women’s Education (JFEW), a non-sectarian, philanthropic organization dedicated to earning college degrees for women from low-income backgrounds.
This story on women and college was produced by The Hechinger report, an independent, non-profit news organization focused on inequalities and innovation in education. Sign up for The Hechinger newsletter.