Social scientists might be getting closer to understanding a trend that has baffled policymakers and upended cultural debates for the past ten years: the widening higher education gender gap. No, not the deficit of women in STEM fields (a gender gap the media is much more comfortable reporting on, and that universities are much more comfortable trying to address), but, rather, the increasingly acute deficit of men on college campuses in the first place. A new paper in a major academic journal argues that the decline in male educational attainment can be traced in part to the rise of fatherless homes. Growing up without a father, the authors claim, harms the educational prospects of boys more than it harms the prospects of their sisters. Anna Sutherland of the Institute for Family Studies summarizes the paper’s findings:
In a new article in Family Relations, William Doherty, Brian Willoughby, and Jason Wilde provide evidence for a thesis not many have considered: Changes in family structure have contributed to the growing gender gap in college enrollment. Growing up with stably married parents makes children of both sexes more likely to succeed at school, even controlling for socioeconomic status, but father absence seems to hurt boys more than it does girls. Thus, as father absence becomes more prevalent, girls gain a relative advantage in the classroom.
As with all complicated social science studies going into uncharted terrain, there is surely more work to be done to show that the relationship is really a causal one, and more studies would be needed to confirm the findings. But if future research were to support this thesis, that would paint a rather grim picture. While other hypotheses for why men are being left in the dust when it comes to higher education point to somewhat straightforward fixes, like creating primary school classroom environments better suited to boys’ needs, the relationship highlighted in this study points to a deep-rooted vicious cycle: Fatherless homes lead to poorer educational outcomes for boys, which makes those boys less “marriageable” when they mature, which makes it more likely that their sons will also grow up in fatherless homes.
Regular readers know that we at Via Meadia want to see major reforms brought to the higher education system, but even in the current system the declining educational attainment of a large swathe of American men is clearly not a good sign, for the economy or for our social fabric. Addressing it would probably require a range of reforms, to our education system, to our tax structure, and to cultural mores. But for now, perhaps the best takeaway from the study is that the decline of the two-parent family may be a cause—and not only a consequence—of some of America’s most pressing social challenges.