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Article | Fall 2006

The Growing Female Advantage in College Completion

College admissions committees across the country are facing new challenges in their efforts to maintain campus diversity. For the past two decades, women have been graduating from college at higher rates than their male peers, causing some colleges to consider affirmative action policies for men. While the issue of gender equity and balance has long been a concern for institutions of higher education, this concern traditionally arose from the exclusion and marginalization of women, which persisted despite the establishment of womenÂ's colleges and rising female enrollment.

In subsequent decades, many colleges ramped up their efforts to achieve gender equality, and institutions that once catered solely to men began to accept female students as well. In 1972, the U.S. Department of Education passed Title IX, which intended to redress gender inequality in schools. According to the amendment, Â"no person in the U.S. shall, on the basis of sex be excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal aid.Â" With these and other measures to boost female enrollment, graduation rates of men and women reached parity in 1982.

From this point onward, women started to overtake men in college completion. By 2004, women were earning 58 percent of all bachelorÂ's degrees awarded in the United States. And according to the U.S. Department of Education, this gender gap will only widen in the coming decade. While the growing number of female college graduates gives cause for celebration, it is also raises some important questions. Why have women gone from graduating at rates far below men to outpacing them so dramatically? And, what are the long-term implications of this reversal in tertiary education trends? Columbia researcher Thomas DiPrete and Ohio State University researcher Claudia BuchmannÂ's recent studies strive to answer these questions and uncover the underlying factors driving the growing gender gap in college completion.

Â"The rising female advantage in college completion is an important topic of study both in its own right, as a rare example of a reversal of a once persistent pattern of stratification, and because of its potential impacts on labor markets, marriage markets, family formation, and other arenas,Â" they comment. Â"Shifting educational attainment rates for men and women could affect gender gaps in wages, labor force participation, and may affect womenÂ's decisions to marry, as more of them marry down, delay marriage, or forego it altogether. These changes could have a profound impact on family formation and parenting.Â"

DiPrete and BuchmannÂ's study appeared in the August 2006 issue of the American Sociological Review. It expanded on their previous findings published in the February 2006 issue of Demography. They embarked on this project because they believed previous studies did not sufficiently account for these gender-specific education trends. Earlier studies either largely focused on a single explanation that could only be part of the answer such as higher non-cognitive skills in females (e.g. attentiveness and organization), or attributed the change to more rapidly rising returns to higher education for women, or concentrated on a very specific subpopulation. DiPrete and BuchmannÂ's study, by contrast, is the first to assess broadly the causes of the growing female advantage in college completion with nationally-representative data for the United States.

In their February 2006 study, DiPrete and Buchmann explained how rising incentives in the form of higher wage earnings, greater chances of getting and staying married, and a generally better standard of living accounted for the growing number of women pursuing and achieving success in higher education. In their most recent study, they acknowledge that rising incentives can only partially explain the trend. Resources, they argue, are a crucial determinant of an individualÂ's ability to respond to incentives, and inequalities in resources are a major determinant of inequalities in educational attainment. With this in mind, DiPrete and Buchmann emphasize how parental education and other family-related resources exert their influence at each level of educational attainment.

Their most recent research analyzed data from two sources: the General Social Surveys (GSS), which were administered between 1972 and 2002 and provide information on educational attainment and family background, and data on the 1973-74 birth cohort from the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS).

Their breakthrough study finds important changes in the gender-specific effects of family background during the second half of the twentieth century. DiPrete and BuchmannÂ's analysis of the GSS data shows that for cohorts born prior to the mid-1960s, daughters were able to reach parity with sons only in the minority of families where both parents were college educated while less-educated parents favored sons over daughters. In households where mothers had some college and fathers had a high school education or less, the female disadvantage was even greater. The male advantage also persisted in female headed households during this period.

For those born after the mid-1960s, the male advantage began to diminish. DiPrete and Buchmann note, Â"Most of the shift stems from the growing vulnerability of boys who are sons of high school educated or absent fathers.Â" Their research shows that after 1966, the status of the father becomes a key influence in shaping educational outcomes of boys and girls. The NELS data reveal that in families where the father was either absent or only high school educated, there has been a decisive shift from a male advantage prior to 1966 to a female advantage from the mid-1960s onward. Boys growing up in such households had, and continue to have, the greatest difficulties in obtaining a college degree, despite the fact that prior to 1966, fatherÂ's education did not pose a barrier to sonÂ's educational attainment. Daughters growing up under the same circumstances demonstrated, by contrast, the largest increases in college enrollment and graduation.

These findings are significant in light of the fact that the primary reason for the growing gender gap in college completion is the high drop-out rate of male students. This highlights another disparity between male and female college students—academic performance, which may partially explain the roots of the gender gap in education. Not only are women graduating at higher rates than their male peers, they are also picking up a disproportionate percentage of honors degrees. Last year, girls outperformed boys on the writing section of the SAT for the first time in a generation. But these findings are not surprising. Although female enrollment and graduation rates have been lower than that of males, evidence of womenÂ's superior academic performance has been in evidence at least back to the 1950s. Â"Given the long history of a female advantage in academic performance, something else must be changing in order for this advantage to play a decisive role in the observed trend in college completion,Â" according to DiPrete and Buchmann. Â"Declining gender discrimination, changing incentives for higher education, and the impact of these changes on resource provision by families are likely crucial elements in the process.Â"

The female advantage is particularly apparent among black and Hispanic women, who now respectively claim a staggering 67 percent and 61 percent of all bachelorÂ's degrees in their racial group. Meanwhile, 57 percent of degrees awarded to whites are earned by women, and 52 percent of undergraduate degrees awarded to Asians are awarded to women. DiPrete and BuchmannÂ's research suggests that while superior academic performance explains the gender difference in college completion rates for white women, it may be necessary to consider factors beyond academic performance to explain the even larger gender gap for blacks and Hispanics.

Despite the huge gains made by women in college attendance and completion, they still lag behind men in certain areas, most notably in mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering. As the gender gap in college completion rates continues to widen to the advantage of women, however, colleges and policymakers in the education field will be forced to grapple with the challenges male students are facing as well. How they choose to deal with this issue will depend on the root causes of declining male graduates, which Thomas DiPrete and Claudia Buchmann have attempted to uncover in their most recent research. Their study takes a multi-pronged approach to understanding why the gender composition of colleges began to change in the middle of the twentieth century and why the trend continues to the present day. Just as in the past few decades, students arriving on college campuses across the country this year will see more women in the classroom, in extracurricular activities, and more likely than not, on graduation day.

Findings presented in this article are drawn from Â"Gender-specific Trends in the Value of Education and the Emerging Gender Gap in College Completion,Â" published in the February 2006 issue of Demography and from Â"The Growing Female Advantage in College Completion: The Role of Family Background and Academic Achievement,Â" published in the August 2006 issue of the American Sociological Review.

Thomas DiPrete is Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Wealth and Inequality at ISERP and Chair of the Sociology Department at Columbia. His main research interests include social stratification and mobility, organizations and labor markets, demography, and quantitative methodology. Claudia Buchmann is Associate Professor of Sociology at Ohio State University. Her current research focuses on race, class, and gender inequalities in American higher education in the United States and educational and labor market inequalities in South Africa. For more information, contact Claudia Buchmann at or Thomas DiPrete at

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