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How Dads' Involvement Can Address the Gender Gap in Higher Education

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A new gender gap has emerged in our higher education system: women are enrolling in and graduating from college at much higher rates than men.

The fact is a gender gap has existed in higher education for some time. Until recent decades, more men than women enrolled in and graduated from college. That gap has been turned on its head. In 1994, the proportion of female and male high school graduates who enrolled in college was virtually the same (63 percent and 61 percent, respectively). By 2012, a sizable gap had emerged with 71 percent of female high school graduates enrolled in college compared to 61 percent of males.

Beginning in 1991, more women ages 25 to 29 had obtained a bachelor's degree or higher than did men of the same age. The gap in college completion has widened in recent years because the rate of men earning degrees has flat lined while the rate of women earning degrees has continued to increase. Since 1969, the rate of women ages 25-29 earning degrees has risen some 20 percent while the rate of men of the same age earning degrees has barely increased so that now approximately 35 percent of all women have at least a bachelor's degree compared to only 25 percent of men. The gap doesn't discriminate based on race or ethnicity. Women now represent nearly three-fifths of graduate students.

While we should celebrate that more women attend college and obtain degrees than ever before, we should be concerned that men are being left behind and that extremely little is being done about it. This trend has dire economic and social consequences. Men who don't graduate from college earn less money, for example, than men who do. It also makes them more vulnerable to unemployment, which has a host of consequences that include a higher risk for criminal behavior.

Is anything being done to address the college graduation rate of men? A host of "college-readiness" programs have sprung to life in recent years that primarily target low-income, minority high school students with the goals of getting them to see the value of a college education and preparing them to succeed once there (i.e. obtain a degree). But they don't acknowledge the gender gap. Consequently, they don't employ strategies that might be especially effective with males. I don't propose that these programs should target males to the detriment of females, only that these programs might be more likely to develop strategies that would be especially effective with males if they acknowledged the gender gap.

More recently, and hopefully, the Obama administration launched an initiative called My Brother's Keeper that seeks to improve educational attainment and employment prospects of young black and Hispanic men while reducing involvement in crime. While it counts among its supporters major philanthropies, politicians, and celebrities, it's too early to tell what impact the initiative will have or what will happen to it after Obama leaves office. Still, it's important to note that this initiative exists to address the educational challenges faced by some boys and men specifically.

What more could be done to address the gender gap? Greater father involvement in the lives of high school students. Father absence is at the heart of the educational challenges faced by boys and men. Boys are more likely to drop out of high school, for example, when they grow up without their dads. (Accordingly, My Brother's Keeper acknowledges this fact.)

A recent study on the impact of father involvement on college graduation rates reveals why greater father involvement is vital to addressing the gender gap specifically and increasing college graduation rates generally because, quite frankly, we should also be concerned that only 1 of 3 young adults, regardless of gender, graduates from college.

Using data gathered on a nationally representative sample of adolescents ages 7-12, Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia divided teens into four groups based on their fathers' level of involvement in their lives: not involved, less involved, involved, and very involved. He found that, regardless of socioeconomic status and compared to teens of not involved dads, teens with involved dads were 98 percent more likely to graduate from college while teens with very involved fathers were 105 percent more likely to graduate from college. Clearly, more involved fathers contribute to more college success for our nation's young adults and is a much more cost-effective solution than hundreds of programs and initiatives that, while laudable and part of the solution, don't go far enough upstream and cost a ton of money.

The good news and bad news, as Wilcox points out, is that today's dads are more involved than ever. This involvement bodes well for their children's college prospects. Unfortunately, more adolescents than ever live in father-absent homes. Getting a grip on addressing the gender gap in college graduation rates requires we get a grip on addressing father absence. Fortunately, more involved fathers will help our boys and young men succeed with the added bonus that it's impact is gender blind.