Female Enrollment Up in Colleges, but Faculty Pay Gap Remains

Nov. 12, 2021, 6:45 a.m. ·

Chart of postsecondary enrollments, 1947-2019
Postsecondary enrollments in the United States (Graphic by Joseph McMullen, Nebraska Public Media)

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Since the Title IX law, prohibiting sex discrimination in education, passed in 1972, the number of women attending and graduating from colleges and universities has passed the number of men. But behind those figures, experts say, challenges and controversies remain.

In 1947, just after World War II and the return of soldiers to civilian life, just 29% of people enrolled in post-secondary degree-granting institutions in the United States were women.

By 1971, the year before Title IX became law, that figure stood at 42%.

Women passed men in enrollment in 1979, and by 2019, the last year for which figures are available from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), women were 57% of enrollees.

The trend reported by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is similar, though not quite so pronounced, with women going from 25% to 48% of enrollment between 1947 and 2019.

Beth Jarosz source-Population Reference Bureau.jpg
Beth Jarosz (Photo courtesy Population Reference Bureau)

“There has been a lot of progress for women,” said Beth Jarosz of the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization that tracks the effects of policy on health and well-being. “If we think back to my mother's generation, who would have been trying to go to college in the 70s, there weren't the types of opportunities, then there was an expectation that women would stay home with their families that they might not be working. And that if they did, it would be the sort of low wage jobs and they'd be second fiddle to a male breadwinner.”

Jarosz said there are many other indicators, both inside and outside of colleges, that show women still face obstacles.

Katrina Jagodinsky headshot. She wears glasses and a blue shirt with a purple scarf
Katrina Jagodinsky (Photo courtesy UNL)

Katrina Jagodinsky, a history professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said understanding the big picture requires looking beyond simply the number of women who enroll and get degrees.

“If you look there, more closely at the data, you tend to see that there remain relatively significant gender imbalance in particular fields over others,” Jagodinsky said.

For example, in 2017-2018, women earned less than half the number of degrees men did in in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM fields, according to NCES.

Overall, Jarosz said, the trend toward women outnumbering men in college is a way of coping with the wage gap that favors men.

“Women basically need a whole additional level of education to match men's earnings. So for example, if a man has completed high school, a woman needs some college or an associate's degree, to be equivalent in earnings,” she said.

Tom Green
Tom Green (Photo courtesy AACRAO)

Tom Green of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers said that’s consistent with what he’s hearing from colleges.

“Young men, especially, have tended to see that their pathway to a job -- not necessarily career, but a job -- is more flexible, and includes more non-college options than perhaps women perceive that to be,” Green said.

Green said this phenomenon could be an updated version of men graduating from high school and taking more physically demanding jobs, like working in a General Motors plant.

“Perhaps that version is at lower wages. And perhaps that version is at Amazon and not GM. But definitely we're seeing young men not enrolling in the numbers that they were previously,” he said.

The number of men enrolled in degree-granting post-secondary institutions in the United States declined from just over nine million in 2011 to 8.4 million in 2019. The number of women also dropped, but from just under 12 million to 11.3 million, still leaving them at 57% of enrollees, according to NCES.

Some observers attribute the decline in men’s share of enrollment to discrimination. In a 2019 opinion piece in USA Today, University of Tennessee Law Professor Glenn Reynolds wrote “At today’s universities, masculinity is almost never discussed except in negative terms, usually with the word ‘toxic’ attached.” Reynolds added that Title IX sexual misconduct complaints have been turned into a “club with which to beat male students.”

Green disagreed. He said men’s participation in higher education still gives them opportunities. But he doesn’t dispute that the atmosphere on campus has changed, citing demonstrations across the nation against alleged sexual assaults in fraternities.

“There are certain high profile areas where men are being held more accountable than they have been in the past. But does that equate to discrimination? Not at all,” he said.

Beyond what enrollment trends show, another factor in evaluating gender equity is the question of what happens after graduation.

Jarosz said women getting degrees in fields that used to be male- dominated doesn’t negate the pay gap. “There is this sense that the jobs, the types of occupations that men go into pay more. Well, is that true because that's the choice that men are making, or is it true because men get paid more when they get into the workplace?” she asked. “There's been quite a bit of research that suggests that as women enter those historically male-dominated fields, the pay comes down. So it’s a chicken and an egg problem.”

That kind of inequality extends to higher education, said Jagodinsky.

“Within higher ed, there are concerns about the promotion of female faculty. So (I’m) not necessarily suggesting that there are barriers to women becoming assistant professors, but that they may not have the support to become associate and then especially full (professors),” she said.

In 2019, women made up just under half the full time faculty in U.S. colleges. But men still accounted for almost three-quarters of the full professors, according to NCES.

Even among the ranks of full professors in Nebraska, men were paid more than women: $116,003 for men; $103,707 for women in the 2018-19 school year, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Looking over the long haul, Jarosz says there’s been a lot of improvement for women in education, wages, and access to careers and lifestyle they want. But challenges remain on issues inside and outside education that are important to women including wage equity, child care and senior care.

“We’ve made progress, but there’s still a long way to go,” she said.