Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Female Edge in Completing College

Part 3 on gender. Prior posts archived here.

One of the most striking educational trends in recent history is the growing gender gap in college completion. 65% of all bachelor’s degrees were awarded to men in 1960; by 2005, women received 58% of all bachelor’s degrees. Gender disparities are even greater among some minority groups, with women earning 66% of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans, 61% of those awarded to Hispanics, 60% of those awarded to Native-Americans, versus 57% of those awarded to whites.

What's going on here? A paper by economist Claudia Goldin and colleagues takes the long view, showing us that women were almost achieving parity in college completion with men between 1900-1930. The male advantage grew in the wake of World War II and was at its largest in 1947. But women caught up to men in 1982 and have leapfrogged over their male peers since then. Studying high school graduating classes from 1957-1992, Goldin found that a decreasing math test score gap and girls' increased course loads in math and science contribute to the growing female advantage. While men took 1.39 math courses for ever 1 math course taken by women in 1957, by 1992, there was no gender difference in course-taking patterns.

Goldin gives us the long view, and sociologists Claudia Buchmann and Thomas DiPrete take a closer look at these patterns. (Paper available here.) They provide a nice overview of potential factors explaining the growing female advantage, which include increasing incentives to get an education (because of a greater increase in returns to women's college education), changes in the ways that parents invest resources among their sons and daughters, and varying effects of family structure on boys and girls (i.e. such that boys are more affected by an absent father than girls).

Here's what they find:
  • For white kids born before the mid-1960s, daughters and sons achieved parity in college completion only in families where both parents were college-educated, while parents with less education seemingly favored sons over daughters.
  • But for kids born after the mid-1960s, the male advantage in less educated families and those with an absent father declined and then entirely reversed.
They also find growing consequences of gender gaps in academic achievement in determining college completion. While it's not new that girls outperform boys in terms of grades and reading scores (they've done so since the 1950s), what is new is the consequence of their superior performance. Girls' advantage in academic performance, coupled with their advantage in non-cognitive skills (i.e. the amount of time they spend on homework - see Brian Jacob's paper here), combine to give them an advantage in completing college. Finally, Buchmann and DiPrete also find that having a dad at home helps black males more than white males.

I've been writing primarily about education policy, and I wrote about gender patterns this week to draw attention to an obvious but important point - that is, broad social trends that happen outside of schools affect how kids do inside of them. This is not to say that schools don't play a role in exacerbating or attenuating gender gaps - surely they can and do - but that schools are not insulated from shifts that are happening within families and in the culture at large.

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