Richard V. Reeves points out a disconcerting finding: in studies of interventions that seek to boost the life prospects of the disadvantaged, when positive effects are found, the benefits tend to accrue to women, not men. He discusses the findings in “Why Men Are Hard to Help,” appearing in the most recent issue of National Affairs. The essay is adapted from his recent book: Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It. Some examples:
Thanks to a group of anonymous benefactors, students educated in the city’s K-12 school system receive paid tuition at almost any college in the state. Other cities have similar initiatives, but the Kalamazoo Promise is unusually generous. It’s also one of the few programs of its kind to have been robustly evaluated — in this case by Timothy Bartik, Brad Hershbein, and Marta Lachowska of the Upjohn Institute. They found that the Kalamazoo Promise made a major difference in the lives of its beneficiaries — more so than other, similar programs made in theirs. But the average impact disguises a stark gender divide. According to the evaluation team, women in the program “experience very large gains,” including an increase of 45% in college-completion rates, while “men seem to experience zero benefit.” The cost-benefit analysis showed an overall gain of $69,000 per female participant — a return on investment of at least 12% — compared to an overall loss of $21,000 for each male participant. In short, for men, the program was both costly and ineffective.
One of the other studies that jumped off my desk in considering this evidence was an evaluation of a mentoring and support program called “Stay the Course” at Tarrant County College, a two-year community college in Fort Worth, Texas. Community colleges are a cornerstone of the American education system, serving around 7.7 million students — largely from middle- and lower-class families. But there is a completion crisis in the sector: Only about half the students who enroll end up with a qualification (or transfer to a four-year college) within three years of enrolling. Many of these schools produce more dropouts than diplomas. The good news is that there are programs, like Stay the Course, that can boost the chances of a student succeeding. The bad news is that, as the Fort Worth pilot shows, they might not work for men, who are most at risk of dropping out in the first place. Among women, the Fort Worth initiative tripled associate-degree completion. This is a huge finding: That kind of effect is rare in any social-policy intervention. But as with free college in Kalamazoo, the program had no impact on college completion rates for men.
But Stay the Course and the Kalamazoo Promise are just two among dozens of initiatives in education that seem not to benefit boys or men. An evaluation of three preschool programs — Abecedarian, Perry, and the early Training Project — for example, showed “substantial” long-term benefits for girls but “no significant long-term benefits for boys.” Project READS, a North Carolina summer reading program, boosted literacy scores “significantly” for third-grade girls — giving them the equivalent of a six-week acceleration in learning — but there was a “negative and insignificant reading score effect” for boys. …
Students who attended their first-choice high school in Charlotte, North Carolina, after taking part in a school-choice lottery earned higher GPAs, took more Advanced Placement classes, and were more likely to go on to enroll in college than their peers — but the overall gains were “driven entirely by girls.” A new mentoring program for high-school seniors in New Hampshire almost doubled the number of girls enrolling in a four-year college, but it had “no average effect” for boys. Urban boarding schools in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., boosted academic performance among low-income black students, but only female ones. College scholarship programs in Arkansas and Georgia increased the number of women earning a degree but had “muted” effects on white men and “mixed and noisy” results for black and Hispanic men.
And so on, and so on, for studies of the effects of wage subsidies, worker training, and other areas. Reeves notes that a number of studies of such programs point out the gap between outcomes for boys and girls, or men and women, and then note (as academic research papers love to do) that it deserves further study. But those further studies–much less proposals for policies that would have improved outcomes for men–don’t seem to happen.
Thus, Reeves, like the rest of us, ends up falling back on explanations that have a plausible ring, but aren’t exactly the result of gold standard cause-and-effect social science research. He writes: “The problem is not that men have fewer opportunities; it’s that they are not seizing them. The challenge seems to be a general decline in agency, ambition, and motivation.” I
Reeves also notes: “[W]here there is a difference by gender, it is essentially always in favor of girls and women. The only real exception to this rule is in some vocational programs or institutions, which do seem to benefit men more than women — one among many reasons we need more of them.” Perhaps such programs speak more clearly to those with lower agency, ambition, and motivation?
If women had dramatically lower rates of college attendance, it would be viewed as a national problem. Indeed, it was viewed that way. As Reeves notes:
In 1972, Congress passed Title IX — a landmark statute to promote gender equality in higher education. Quite rightly, too: At the time, there was a 13 percentage-point gap in the proportion of bachelor’s degrees going to men compared to women. Just a decade later, the gap had closed. By 2019, the gender gap in bachelor’s degrees was 15 points — wider than it had been in 1972, but in the opposite direction. Today, women far outperform men in the American education system. … In the United States, for example, the 2020 drop in college enrollment was seven times greater for male students than for female students. At the same time, male students struggled more than female students with online learning.
Societies with a substantial proportion of disgruntled and flailing young men will suffer from an array of other related problems.