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Gender Gap in Higher Ed Outcomes is Scrutinized

As degree attainment among men has continued to lag that of women, more state policy-makers are looking at the issue in a bid to prevent the gap from significantly affecting the state.

University of Texas at Austin economics majors Alexis Guevara and Ahmed Quadri capture a graduation day moment for posterity on May 5, 2014.

When Victor Sáenz, an education professor at the University of Texas at Austin, began to focus his research nearly a decade ago on the plight of men in education, he experienced some pushback, even from fellow academics.

“Early on, I’d get a lot of questions,” said Sáenz, who in 2010 started a mentoring group for male Hispanic students called Project Males — Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success. “I wouldn’t say criticisms, but certainly apprehension or resistance to focusing on this issue.”

But as degree attainment among men has continued to lag that of women, more state policy-makers are looking at the issue in a bid to prevent the gap from significantly affecting the state.

National interest is also rising. Last month, Sáenz helped lead an online seminar hosted by the White House, which has started its own initiatives on the education of Hispanic and black men, the populations with the lowest rates of higher education success.

“If half the population is systematically lagging behind the other half, that’s going to be a real drag on our ability to meet our goals and secure any kind of prosperity for our future,” said Sáenz, adding that the increased attention, particularly in a state with rapidly changing demographics, is probably driven by economic imperatives. 

David Gardner, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s deputy commissioner for academic planning and policy, said he expected the issue to be a plank in the state’s next long-term higher education plan. Narrowing the gender gap was not an explicit goal in the state’s previous 15-year plan, which expires next year.

When it comes to getting their degrees, female students outperform their male peers in every ethnic and socioeconomic group. But attainment is particularly low among Hispanic and black men.

Of the Texas students who enrolled in eighth grade in 2001, about 23.3 percent of the female students had earned some sort of higher education credential, compared with 15.7 percent of the male students. Fewer than 10 percent of the black and Hispanic male students had earned a degree or certificate.

A report released this year by the Austin-based Center for Community College Student Engagement said black male students reported the highest level of participation in educational and support programs at community colleges. But when compared with their white and Hispanic peers, they had the lowest success rates.

Kay McClenney, the center’s former director, said this “conundrum” might result, in part, from well-intentioned but ineffective support services.

“Way too often,” she said, “the programs are designed to fix the student rather than designed to fix the institution so that it is more effective at serving the student.”

Richard Rhodes, the president of Austin Community College, agreed. “At times, not intentionally, we think we’re doing the right thing, but we create barriers to opening up pathways for students.” 

Austin Community College is a member of the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color, which Sáenz and his colleagues created last year. The group hopes to develop more effective strategies for boosting student achievement among minority men.

“Right now, there are a lot of homegrown or boutique programs,” Sáenz said. “But there has not been a very good culture of evidence.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. Richard Rhodes is a donor to the Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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