Why Do so Few Men Graduate College in Their Early Twenties?

Among?22-year-olds, there are 185 female college graduates for every 100 male graduates.? It’s an amazing statistic, and one we saw courtesy of a recent?column by David Brooks. We know that the gender balance at colleges has definitely swung toward women-but could it have swung this far?? Yes and no.? Yes-Brooks is directly citing?a recent BLS report.? But no-this isn’t really representative of what’s happening on campus.? According to the?American Council on Education, the college student body has been 43% male annually since 2000.? If you are too lazy to do the math, this yields 133 women per 100 men; a skewed ratio for sure, but nowhere near as skewed as 185 to 100.

What gives?? It turns out that it’s all about the age you examine. While we each graduated by age 22, and Brooks probably did too, this isn’t the norm.? In fact, fewer than half of those who will ultimately complete a college degree have done so by age 22.? But women at that age are twice as likely to have finished college as men.? Men partly catch up by age 25, and, according to our tabulations of the 2008 American Community Survey, by age 25 there are 141 female college grads for every 100 men with a college degree-much as you would predict from the enrollment data

What’s happening to men?? Here are three possibilities:

  1. Men are taking longer to graduate high school.? This may reflect parents enrolling their sons in school later than their daughters.
  2. Men are taking longer to do a college degree.? It is becoming increasingly uncommon to finish college in four years, and many students take even longer.? Are there gender differences in this?? Why?
  3. Perhaps men are more likely to take a gap year (or years)-seeing the world-before going to college.

We’re interested: Do you have other possible explanations? These three explanations are really just a way of categorizing the differences-what deeper forces underpin the differential trends by gender in age to college completion?

Oh, and if you are interested in the implications of these differential trends for the marriage market, there’s?an interesting discussion over at the Times‘s Room for Debate blog, including commentary by one of us (OK, it’s Betsey).


I would think curriculum choices might have something to do with it. I have no statistics to back up my assertion but it seems the math and science undergrad degrees have become 5 year degrees while many liberal arts and business degrees can still be completed in 4 or less

Megan Goering

Parents with male children may be more likely to hold them back in starting kindergarden. In rural and other highly-competitive high school sports communities, parents often act on concerns over their sons being "accepted" as big enough or tall enough in sports (whereas parents of girls may worry less, based on social norms and/or higher volatility/difference in growth rates and development).

See how much this effect matters! If boys are more likely to be held back going into kindergarten, they'll be much less likely to graduate at 22 and instead may slide until 23. The other effects mentioned, such as taking a year off or other alternate arrangements, may be more likely for students who are "older" already in comparison to their classmates. These students might be more confident/independent after years of conditioning as being "first" or biggest in class.

Just a thought. Happy hunting.



somewhat close to point 3, but more men than women enlist in the armed services. Of those a certain percentage will go onto college after serving or get a degree while serving but it usually takes longer.

Lance S

Completely has to do biological sexual/reproductive incentives.


How significant is military service in the "gap year" explanation?


It may be that men are "expected" to move out of the parent's house earlier than women. Having to get a job and another place to live may force the man to delay school.

Stephen B.

Military Service.

Ian Calhoun

I'm with Mr. Hynes. I'd attribute the disparity at least partially to military service.


What's the age of male/female students at time of enrollment?

I concur with (1) in that many engineering programs (usually male-dominated) are 5-years in nature.


My son did 4 years in the Air Force and now is a freshman in college at 23.


There are significantly more women than men enrolled in many four-year colleges and this disparity seems to be growing. Since there seem to be fewer men enrolled, it makes sense that there would be fewer male graduates.

I think we are losing a lot of boys who might be college-bound by the time they are in high school. My son was placed in a gifted program in grade school. By the time he entered high school, many of the other boys who had been in the program, who should have been enrolled and excelling in advanced classes, were barely passing their regular classes.

We need to do more research to find out what is happening and address this issue or the gap will continue to widen.


Do you think that perhaps, in the New York Times, of all places, the word "graduate" could be used in a gramatically correct way? Men don't graduate college. They graduate FROM college. The college graduates the men.

Jeff C

Athletics may play a role. Scholarship athletes can take a "red shirt" year, taking 5 years to graduate from a 4 year program -- on scholarship for the whole thing.

This lets athletes train for a non-competitive year. I would conjecture that there are far more male athletes taking a red shirt year than females.


While construction/oil refinery/mechanic type jobs are on the decline, these jobs pay well enough for a person in their early twenties and may draw off a number of males that feel financing a new F-350 with "dualies" makes more sense than finish a degree that won't be rewarded in this economy.

Also disagree on the engineering/science/math explanation. I don't know of departments that advertise them as longer programs. In fact, the reasoning is on its face circular to a degree:

1) why do men graduate later
2) men dominate majors that take longer

Possibly explanation for science/engineering majors to take 5+ years: They are predominately filled with men. We've made no progress here unless you can show women in these majors are not graduating in 4 years at the same rate as men.

betty friedan

As a feminist deconstructionist there is only one conclusion. Any national economic measurement with this much of a difference in gender outcomes has to be attributed to sex discrimination. Don't think NOW will move on this one though.

Aron S

I wonder if there is a lot more financial aid available for women over men. It certainly seemed that way ten years ago.


Women are racing the biological clock and trying to get their careers off the ground before they marry and/or have children.

"Better" side effect of society's standards that women need to be married/have kids? I don't know.


I think military service would play a role (men being more likely to enlist than women).

Also, I think men are more likely to strike out on their own right after high school while women are more likely to stay with their parents. The need for money to support themselves would affect the age at which they graduate.

Finally, women are just more mature and will better apply themselves (take more classes, pass more classes) than men.

Ben D

Lance S nailed it. Women are driven to get more done prior to having a baby, which may restrict their options.


Agree with Brett and Raymond. Engineering degrees are often 5 year bachelor degrees.