It takes only the promise of a free meal to get my son to agree to meet with me. I work at the institution where he is a sophomore, and yet we never run into each other; perhaps that is by his design? I am not ashamed to admit that I once lured him into my office with a photo of a barbecue sandwich just so I could see his face and make sure that he was doing okay. These are the things that some parents have to do.

This recent meal meet-up over Mexican food was twofold: I wanted to know how his spring semester was going after a week into it, and I wanted some feedback on why he thought men were not enrolling or staying in college. This knowledge that women outpace men in enrollment, retention, and graduation is not new. The data have pointed out this trend for a couple of decades. It is the current attention in reports like the one the Brookings Institute published last fall coupled with a general anxiety at college campuses about declining enrollment trends overall that have administrators worried.

And my campus is no exception. We would love to see more males enroll, get engaged in their coursework, and graduate, but our numbers tell us otherwise. That is why I found myself in an impromptu meeting with concerned, committed, and creative colleagues this week about this very topic. “What is going on with men on our campus and what can we do about it?” are questions that formed our starting point.

I have been working in higher education for over 25 years, and while I don’t profess to know as much about student behavior as I would like, I have some sneaking suspicions that the way colleges structure their programs and the economics of a college education are most likely influencing the lack of enrollment for men.

So I decided to ask a young degree-seeking man who just happens to be my son. I also want to note that my own kid is, what I consider, a pretty typical male student: bright, interested in a few things, and fairly laid back when it comes to academics, but not so laid back he disengages or doesn’t care about school.

Here is his take on where colleges succeed and where they fall short in engaging men. And, yes, I realize he is a sample size of one (which in research lingo is not enough to determine a trend), but I think his insight may help parents and even college administrators engage in conversations about what how we can better serve this population.

  • First- and second-year courses are not that interesting and don’t seem very important. This was the hardest to hear as I have spent a quarter century trying to create and deliver courses that are helpful and engaging. But I have to appreciate the kid’s honesty. When I asked the follow-up question about what he meant by that, he relayed that the courses seem disconnected with what he is interested in that could help him improve his life (e.g., personal finance, men’s health and wellness) or help him connect his interests to career pathways (e.g., a math class that uses key concepts to solve a real, workplace problem).
  • There is not enough hands-on, active learning built into coursework. When I asked him what would improve his interest in those first- and second-year courses, he said that getting outside for a biology class or installing playground equipment for a course on social issues would make what he is learning more interesting. I have to admit that one of my favorite classes in college was a geology course–not because I liked science; I was an English literature major–because we went on a camping trip and I got to see fossils and sedimentation and all kinds of geologic wonders. Thirty years later and I am still raving about it. I bet that more experiences like that would benefit not just our males, but all students.
  • The costs of college don’t seem worth it. While he is fortunate that between his scholarship and us his educational expenses are covered, he did say that some of his friends struggle with paying for college. Whether they work a job to pay their expenses or take out student loans, these men feel that the stress of paying tuition–and the worry about having to pay loans back–is too much to bear, especially if they are not that interested in what they are studying or earning lackluster grades. My son summed it up this way: Why pay for college if you are making Cs and Ds?
  • Family support makes a difference. After my son talked about some of his buddies who are going to college with little or no family support, I asked him what he would have done if we had not basically forced him to go and provided financial support. His answer was “I doubt I would be doing this.” This response was not shocking, but it still hurt a little. Really? I know he is not alone as I have had many conversations with students who have said basically the same thing. I think where our college-aged men fall through the cracks is when that support begins to waver, or family members start to question the investment of time and money.
  • Social activities help…a lot. My own kid joined a fraternity. Other young men I know have gotten involved in student government or leadership positions on campus. These opportunities have helped them stay engaged and have provided social experiences that have helped them get through the more onerous parts of college such as boring courses, homework, and challenging assignments. My son gave his social life two thumbs up and indicated it was one of the reasons that he likes where he is…and one of the reasons we never see him even over holiday breaks.
  • The freedom is a big plus. For a kid who never loved school and who hated sitting in a classroom for 6 hours a day being told what to do and when, college has been awesome. He loves that he can make his own schedule each day, deciding when to work out, when to study, and when to take care of those “adulting” things like laundry. If that had not been the case–and college was just four more years of high school–he would not have participated.

These are observations, explanations, and maybe even hypotheses as to what college is not doing to engage young men. I don’t profess to have the answers for what we can do differently…or at least not yet…but I can suggest that talking to these young men would be a great first step to finding solutions. In some cases, these men may just need a little help reframing their experiences or suggestions for finding ways to improve their experience such as joining a volunteer group that provides help to the community. In other cases, there may be some simple things we can do that can help them.

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