By Sue Loughlin
TERRE HAUTE – Nationally, it’s being described as a “male college crisis,” and Indiana is not immune to the trend. Male high school graduates are going to college at much lower rates than women, and that gap continues to widen.
Indiana higher education officials describe it as “a concerning gap …This is the first time in recent history the male college-going rate has dropped to below half (46%),” in reference to the high school graduating class of 2020.
In contrast, the college going rate for Hoosier women in 2020 was 61%.
The report focused on the overall decline in college attendance, with just 53% of Indiana high school graduates going to college in 2020, a one-year decline described as “alarming” by Chris Lowery, Indiana’s new commissioner for higher education.
The gender gap, one component of the report, “has caught the attention of a lot of people,” Lowery said in an interview.
The commission is researching the data and possible reasons why fewer males are choosing college, defined as the full range of credentials beyond high school, including credentials of less than one year up through a four-year degree.
Possible reasons include affordability issues and the perception it’s too expensive, Lowery said. Some may not see the value of college or question if it has the career relevance it did in the past.
But when looking at economic data, including unemployment, labor participation and wages, “Quantitatively, it does pay off,” he said.
“There are clear economic benefits that come with greater levels of education. People with a bachelor’s degree or higher are more likely to be employed and participating in the workforce, and they have significantly higher wages and a greater overall net worth,” Lowery has stated.
The issue is important both for the individuals affected, the state and the economy. Among those who don’t pursue post-secondary education, “The prospects for that individual, for lifelong economic and social mobility, become more limited,” Lowery said.
It doesn’t mean someone can’t be successful, he said, “but statistically, prospects for social and economic mobility lessens,” he said.
The decline in male college participation is also important to the Indiana economy and the ability of employers to have the talent they need with a tight labor market. “Indiana has a booming economy,” Lowery said, but the decline in male post-secondary participation exacerbates the challenges and availability of that talent pool.
Among the organizations taking notice is the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
Indiana’s overall decline in college participation, and among Hoosier males in particular, “is cause for serious concern in an economy that strongly favors workers with education and training beyond high school,” said Jason Bearce, the state chamber’s vice president for education and workforce development.
Companies today are looking closely at state- and metro-area education levels when deciding where to relocate or expand their businesses, “so we absolutely have to turn these numbers around for Indiana to remain competitive,” Bearce said.