I am proud of my bona fides on supporting the advancement of women. It angers me to think how slow executive suites and boardrooms are to welcome more qualified females. Stubborn gender wage gaps for comparable work are unacceptable and must be closed.
However, with all of the attention and focus on supporting equal opportunities for women, we have taken our eyes off an alarming trend. Young men in the US are in trouble by any measure of educational attainment. It’s a big deal and, for reasons of political correctness, we aren’t talking enough about this growing national problem.
I refuse to believe the support of young American’s progress is a zero-sum game – that somehow if we call attention to the problem and take a different approach to improve the experience and outcomes of boys it would come at the expense of celebrating and enabling continued advancement of girls. We can and must recognize the unique challenges of young men and we had better start doing something about it now.
Have you taken a stroll on a college campus recently? Where have the men gone? In the latest census, males comprise 51% of the total US population between the ages of 18-24. Yet, just over 40% of today’s college students are men. In fact, in each year since 1982, more American women than men have received bachelor’s degrees. Over the last decade two million more women graduated from college than men. And the gap continues to grow. Michael Thompson, author ofRaising Cain, a great book on the plight of young males, illustrates the path we are going down with a startling extrapolation. He notes that if today’s trends continue unaltered, the last young man in the US to get a college degree will do so in 2068. Scary stuff.
The gender achievement gap is astounding. The average 11th grade boy writes at the level of the average 8th grade girl. Men are significantly underperforming women. According to a recent NBC news report, women dominate high school honor rolls and now make up more than 70% of class valedictorians.
Again, I am happy to see women succeeding. But can we really afford for our country’s young men to fall so far behind? A growing education attainment gap has profound consequences for the economy.
It mattered far less during the industrial era when young men in this country could find good high-wage jobs in the manufacturing sector without a college degree or post-secondary credential. In a post-industrial economy, the social contract has changed. The deal used to be that college was only for a narrow segment of our population. Everyone else willing to work hard could make enough money to raise a family and achieve the American dream of owning a home, without higher education. With the disappearance of those industrial era jobs, the rug got pulled out from under that assumption. We replaced it with a new social contract by which a college degree, or at least some form of post-secondary credential, was a necessity for anyone hoping to make a decent living. The numbers on this are clear. According to census data, annual earnings for high-school dropouts average $18,900; for high-school graduates, $25,900; for college graduates, $45,400. Add up those numbers over a lifetime and the importance of education comes into focus.
And that’s if there is a job at all. Take a look at how hard the current recession has hit men. Of the jobs lost over the last four years 78% of them were held by men. That leaves 20% of working age men out of work. These jobs are not coming back and men are ill prepared for the 21st century workplace.
If you dig deeper and examine these trendsfor young men of color it will make you cry. At the Business Innovation Factory, our team has been working with the College Board to explore the experience of young men of color in the U.S. The statistics are staggering. Only 26% of African American, 18% of Latino American, and 24% of Native American and Pacific Islander young men ages 24-34 have attained at least an Associates Degree. BIF and the College Board are bringing the voice and experience of young men of color to the center of an innovation conversation on how to turn these disturbing trends around. You can watch a short video trailer about our ongoing work here.
We think equal progress will only come when the US has transformed its education system from a one-size-fits-all pipeline responding to the learning needs of all young men and women in the same way to an individualized approach where every student can find his or her own pathway. We must go from a system geared toward enrollment to one designed around the goal of completion.
In some way, we must turn schools into places that recognize the specific learning needs of young men and help them prepare for 21st century jobs – and we must do so urgently, or leave an entire generation foundering.
(This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review site here.)