Alix Higgins has a total of three men in her four classes at Sacramento State. The gender imbalance is also apparent in campus libraries, restaurants and social spots where students – mostly women – gather.
Four years ago, 30 percent of Sacramento State’s philosophy students were women. This semester, they make up 44 percent of the class.
Department chairwoman Christina Bellon said she has always tackled topics such as child care access and pay equity in her ethics course, but now “these examples are received instead of challenged, confused or thought to be irrelevant.”
While women have outnumbered men on college campuses since the 1980s, the gap has widened significantly over the last 15 years at local four-year public universities. At Sacramento State, nearly 3,400 more women than men are enrolled as undergraduates, a 30 percent difference. At UC Davis, the gender gap is nearly the same.
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College attendance rates are increasing across the nation for young men and women alike, but the percentage of women attending college has increased at a faster clip. In 1980, about 25 percent of California men and women between 18 and 24 were undergraduates in college, census figures show. By 2011, that figure had risen to 40 percent of California men and 47 percent of California women.
“I think this is just an exciting time,” Bellon said. “I think we are starting to see the real flowering of those seeds that were planted in the ’80s and ’90s, to make education more equitable between the genders.”
The tenor of debate in the Philosophy Club has changed as well, she said. “There is still a lot of tearing each other’s arguments apart, but it is more about figuring it out than just winning.”
In her speech pathology and audiology major, Higgins said she and other women have bonded into a “sisterhood” despite having to compete for precious few slots in graduate programs. “There are two girls for every one boy,” she observed about the Sacramento State campus.
There are plenty of opinions about what has caused the gender gap.
The skyrocketing popularity of a college education among women has grown out of necessity, students say. Women need a degree to be as prosperous as men, said Sacramento State senior Rosa Lopez, who is majoring in sociology.
Men are more likely to find decent-paying jobs after high school without college, Lopez said. Her friend Christina Martinez agreed. “Men make more money,” said the senior. “We have to go to college to be at the same level.”
Junior Gregory Swanson said that most of his friends opted to take full-time jobs after high school, and that most of them are doing well. “Men put a bigger priority on having money,” said the business major. “Sometimes they are working a job to help their family. It’s harder for women to do well without a college degree.”
Some experts say women have seen their mothers economically at risk, especially after divorce, and are eager to be more independent. Others say that men have watched their fathers prosper without degrees, making a diploma less desirable.
“Personally, I believe it’s an opportunity that wasn’t there for women in the past, historically,” said Charles Cole, senior associate director of admissions and outreach for Sacramento State. “They see it and take advantage of it.”
California women without a college degree have less of a financial cushion than their male counterparts, earning median annual pay of about $23,000 last year, compared to $31,000 for men. Men and women with bachelor’s degrees earn about twice the median income as those without.
According to state figures, the blue-collar jobs most dominated by men – plumber, auto repairman, carpenter, electrician and construction laborer – typically paid about 40 percent more last year in California than the jobs most dominated by women – secretary, medical assistant, child care worker, maid and receptionist.
The economic downturn was slightly tougher on women without college experience. Nationally, the number of jobs held by female high school graduates age 25 and older, with no college experience, fell by 9 percent from 2007 to 2009, compared with an 8 percent drop for men, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But in the recovery, such women continued to lose jobs by 4 percent, while men have seen a small gain.
The widening gender gap has some concerned.
“I think, as a society, we do want all of our citizens to be well prepared and to be productive and contributing citizens,” said Walter Robinson, executive director of undergraduate admissions at UC Davis. “We probably need to give it a lot more thought ... or we will have a good portion of our citizens ill prepared.”
In the Sacramento region, the gap in academic performance between girls and boys begins in elementary school. Last school year, more girls than boys – at every grade level – scored proficient or advanced on state English Language Arts tests. Males and females scored about the same in math across the grade levels. Sacramento County girls also took more Advanced Placement courses in high school.
Del Campo High school counselor Tracie Locke said the school’s Advancement Via Individual Determination program, which promotes college readiness, has a harder time drawing boys, who currently comprise 10 of the program’s 43 students. School officials are trying to encourage more boys to enroll in the program by sending a male AVID teacher and basketball coach to middle schools for recruitment.
The disparity is glaringly apparent to college admissions officers.
“We all see it,” said Cole. “It’s apparent at all of our workshops that there are more girls or women than boys or men.”
Sacramento State has no formal program to bring men into the school but its “dream team” – a group of young admissions counselors that visit high schools – tries to spread the message that it’s cool to be smart and go to college. “We have to make sure the message falls favorably on the ears of young boys,” said Lori Varlotta, vice president of student affairs at Sacramento State.
Robinson, who also is a mentor to a group of male students at UC Davis, said men need nurturing role models and need to learn that foregoing an immediate salary pays off down the road.
“Going to college is clearly something we perceive as delayed gratification,” he said. “That has been a hard one to promote with a lot of young men I’ve worked with.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of Sacramento State student Alix Higgins. Story updated at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 20.