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Monday, October 3, 2005 - Page updated at 09:51 AM

Campus gender gap: Progress or problem?

Seattle Times staff reporter

When Terri Schneider was a pre-veterinary student in Ohio 30 years ago, she and her mentor were called to a farm one day to treat a cow that had problems with its uterus.

But when she got there, the surprised farmer insisted the operation was not for a woman's eyes. He refused to allow Schneider into the barn. Humiliated, she waited in the truck while her male mentor operated on the animal.

Now Dr. Schneider is a veterinary-medicine instructor at Washington State University in Pullman, where a program once dominated by men has reversed so dramatically that three quarters of the students are women.

And the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program there is only one example of a gender shift in higher education that has taken place across the country.

In 1975, women constitute 45 percent of all U.S. college students. This year, they represent 57.6 percent. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that, by 2014, women will earn 60 percent of all bachelor's degrees and will earn a majority of professional and doctoral degrees. Yet U.S. Census figures show 51 percent of adults under 35 are men.

The shift is similar in Washington, where women now dominate the student bodies at all of the state's largest public and private universities and community colleges.

Some experts worry the trend could lead to a generation of men who are unable to compete in careers or have meaningful relationships with better-educated women.

But others point out that women still face many disadvantages in society.

"Do I think it's doomsday for the male gender? No," said Jacqueline King, a director at the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C. "I look around the world, and it seems to me that men are still in charge."

Either way, the statistics are prompting some colleges to rethink their recruiting policies.

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When women's college enrollment first caught up with men's about 25 years ago, it was seen as a victory for women and a good thing for everyone. But since then, anemic growth in male enrollment and continuing success for women has been quickly widening the gap.

The disparity at the state's two largest universities — the University of Washington and WSU — is still comparatively modest, at about 53 percent female. But the difference is 3,800 more women than men at the two institutions combined.

The gap is larger at the state's community colleges, and larger still at private colleges. At Seattle Pacific University, for example, women outnumber men 2 to 1.

While women have long outnumbered men in liberal arts, women recently have begun to outnumber men in the law and medical schools at the UW. Women also dominate at branch campuses and in online learning.

Some disciplines have remained relatively immune to the changes. For instance, in 1991 women made up 14 percent of WSU students studying engineering and architecture. Now it's 16 percent. In the business school at UW, women's enrollment compared with men's has dropped over the past two decades.

But in many fields, the growing imbalance can create unusual campus dynamics.

"I've heard a lot of girls complaining there are not a lot of guys to date," said WSU veterinary student Dean Lusk, 26.

Suzanne Zbailey, another vet student, said her two bachelor's degrees and a master's degree might actually be a handicap to dating. "I don't care what education level the guy has — but the guy might care," she said.

Inequity linked to race, class

The source of the growing divide is hotly debated. Some experts say it's because girls tend to do better in school from an early age and mature faster. Or they attribute it to more female teachers. Others say it's because it's more socially acceptable for boys to do poorly in school.

"Girls and boys are fundamentally different animals, they learn in different ways, and we are not dealing with those differences," said Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, in Washington, D.C. "We tend to treat all children equally. Girls on the whole look like good students, while boys are not engaged in learning."

But King, of the American Council on Education, said her research shows the gender gap also is tied to race and class. The gender gap widens as family income decreases.

When young, low-income men don't go on to college, they still can get relatively well-paid jobs on construction sites or in warehouses, for example, King said. Low-income women, on the other hand, often are left facing a future of minimum-wage retail jobs.

"That woman is just as concerned about paying for college, but she has an economic imperative more pressing than the male student," King said. "That's really important."

Some occupations for women that traditionally required only high-school education, such as secretarial work, now often require college, King added.

The gender gap is significantly wider among African Americans. Part of the problem is that black men have been dropping out of high school in record numbers, said Obie Clayton, chairman of the sociology department at Morehouse College in Atlanta, an all-male, predominately black college.

"The teachers are over 80 percent female," he said. "When you have white females trying to teach inner-city men, their styles don't fit."

Other factors have played a role in the college gender gap. For instance, veterinary medicine is no longer a macho job, said Charlie Powell, a spokesman at the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine.

"The days of the ride, rope, shoot and spit veterinarian are gone," he said. "They are now a scientist, a surgeon, a medical specialist and an epidemiologist all rolled into one."

With the rise of large, corporate farming, veterinary science has shifted from curing individual farm animals to managing large herds through nutrition and disease control, Powell said. The field also is more tilted toward house pets.

Some men may be deterred by a relatively low starting salary — about $50,000 — compared with fields with similar educational requirements.

At the vet school last week, students were on the first morning rounds of the school year, checking on horses with colic and dogs with cancer. A photo in the hospital lobby showed the 56 women and 17 men in the class of 2006. Historic photos elsewhere showed seas of male faces.

Fewer good blue-collar jobs

The worry for Mortenson, of the Pell Institute, is that the days are gone when "big, strong men" could earn middle-class wages in logging, farming and manufacturing jobs.

"You have to have education and training to qualify for the best-paying jobs out there," he said. "The women seem to understand that message, and the men don't."

If left unabated, Mortenson warns, the gender gap could result in lots of educated, prosperous women and lots of men who are floundering. He sees it as part of a wider male malaise that could result in more men out of work and in jail.

It's already creating difficulties in relationships, he said. With thousands more educated women, many will not find a "college-educated man to marry when they'd really like to marry a man of equivalent education," he said.

Even if leaders begin today to address the gap, it could take decades to turn around, he laments. But it has been a hard point to sell.

"There's no political oxygen for this," he said. "Women have crowded men out from gender issues."

Other experts don't think the gender gap is a problem. They point to the continuing struggles women face.

Men continue to dominate top-paying fields such as engineering and business. They are well-represented at Ivy League schools, and capture most of the top academic jobs. And in the work force, men continue to earn more than equally educated women.

Private schools scrambling

At private colleges, where the gender gap is greatest, some suggest that men prefer the athletics and hard sciences of public schools. Or they suggest that parents often feel their daughters will be safer at smaller, private schools.

Whatever the reasons, administrators at private colleges have been looking for ways to balance the flood of women students.

At Seattle University, where 60 percent of students are women, the gender divide is a source of constant discussion, said Mike McKeon, the dean of admissions. He said the college wants to attract more men, but not in a way that discriminates against women.

Seattle University doesn't use gender as a factor in admission. Instead, the university has changed its advertising recently to make sure that men are visible in photographs and that men's interests and opportunities are highlighted.

McKeon said he has raised the gender divide at college conferences, but "the topic is very uncomfortable for people."

"Caucasian men still retain the most privileged position in society," he said.

Even so, Linda Jacobs, the director of College Placement Services, a Seattle-based company that helps match students with colleges, suspects increasing imbalance in female applicants is causing some colleges to actively discriminate against women.

"I certainly have seen, with a number of colleges, that the stronger females have been wait-listed or denied when less capable males were accepted," she said. "I'm seeing it especially in the smaller liberal-arts colleges."

Jacobs said that causes frustration among parents and students.

"It's especially unfair because years ago, when there were significantly more males, this didn't seem to be a concern," she said.

At the larger public universities, where the gap is smaller, there has been less inclination to act.

"As it becomes more out-of-kilter it may become a primary concern, but currently it is not," said Philip Ballinger, the director of admissions at the UW. "We are more concerned about access from a socio-economic point of view."

Experts seem to agree that the real answers will be found in elementary and high schools. King urges colleges to mentor boys in middle school to make sure they are on a track for college. Clayton believes more male teachers would help.

Mortenson said he sees some merit in all-boys schools. But he adds that "it's as much a women's issue as a man's issue."

"Most women have men in their lives, and if those males are floundering in some way — if they are laid off at the factory or the son is acting out in school — it's upsetting," Mortenson said.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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