The participation and progress of females in higher education in the United States has been followed closely for more than three decades. Debates over closing the gender gap in postsecondary education continue. Several arguments have been put forward advancing the proposition that women are succeeding at the expense of males. In the US, concerns have been greatest for the growing gap in college enrolment and completion between black men and women. While black women comprised 55% of all blacks enrolled in 4-year institutions in 1971, they constituted 60% of the black students enrolled in 4-year institutions in 2004 (Allen et al., 2005). The gap is even larger in all degree-granting undergraduate institutions, where 64.3% of all blacks enrolled in 2004 were women.
The female to male differential in enrolment and graduation rates has been reported to be as high as 6:1 in some historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs; Kaba, 2005), creating a gap that some find alarming. The black gender differential has often been couched in the wider context of several indicators on which the relative status of black males is poor or deteriorating, including employment, health, and incarceration measures (Sum et al., 2007). A common inference is that special programs or policies are needed to target young black males, and to address specific barriers or dysfunctions to which they are presumed to be subject (Sum et al., 2007).
Our research tracks the enrolment of males and females in higher education over a 30-year period in anattempt to shed light on the problem. This article notes that the gender gap in college enrolment and completion among African Americans is consistent with – though much larger than – similar gaps among all major race and ethnic groups in the United States, and is thus – in important senses – not solely just one more socioeconomic or cultural problem that is specific to African Americans or African-American males. We demonstrate that, for African-Americans and other major race and ethnic groups, the gendergap– as measured by undergraduate fall enrolment – is larger than the gap measure by the percentages of all 18- to 24-year-olds and of 18- to 24-year-old high school graduates who entered or completed college. This would strongly suggest that differential retention is important to explaining the gap, and that, policymakers and educational institutions may need to focus more on identifying and addressing issues that might affect retention – including academic and financial resources, social support issues, and competing employment needs or opportunities.
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