Seeking gender balance in college and university enrollments

Aaron Mahl

September 19, 2016

This post is adapted from a recent article in University Business

Achieving gender balance in college enrollments means different things to different institutions. Technical programs with STEM-heavy curricula have traditionally struggled to attract female enrollments, though women are fast making inroads into these fields. Large public universities and smaller liberal arts colleges, on the other hand, are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain their male enrollments.

By 2020, it is projected that men will only represent 41 percent of college enrollees. Research has shown that not only are fewer men attending postsecondary institutions, but also that a larger percentage of them are dropping out as well. These data are certainly sobering, especially for institutions who desire a larger percentage of male students.

Calibrating goals to reality

For institutions struggling to attract males, reasonable goals should be considered. Institutions with a broad mix of academic and co-curricular programs may be able to achieve 45-50 percent male enrollment. However, for other institutions that lack programmatic advantages (both curricular and co-curricular), achieving 35-40 percent male enrollment may be an aspirational goal. Given the challenging statistics noted above, it is imperative that colleges and universities be proactive and intentional if they hope to overcome the demographic obstacles standing in the way of gender balance.

Academic and co-curricular programs

The balance of academic programs can have a significant impact on male/female ratios. Attracting a higher percentage of men will likely begin with the institution’s academic portfolio. When was the last time your institution audited its academic offerings? Examining yields by academic division and/or program over a five to seven year period may reveal certain academic programs where you’ve lost male market share. What programs are attracting a higher number of male admits? Where has yield either decreased or increased dramatically over the last five years?

It is also important for institutional and academic leadership to consider its ability to attract a balanced gender representation from any future majors or programs that come online. Of course, before launching any academic program, conducting market research on expected returns and weighing those returns against the institution’s enrollment goals will be critical.

Athletic programs

Institutions have also utilized athletics to grow enrollment from males. Although a costly sport, beginning a football program can boost enrollment by 80-100 students in one enrollment cycle. Of course, as with any initiative, examining the trade-offs will be necessary. What is the start-up cost of beginning a new athletic program? What indirect investments in support services will be needed? What will the impact be on retention? What type of impact will the new program have on the campus culture?

Marketing to men

Institutions seeking to grow male enrollment would also be well-served by conducting an audit of their marketing materials. For those institutions seeking to attract men, here are some questions to consider: What type of language is used in your publications? Can male prospective students easily “see themselves” in your campus culture? Do you emphasize extracurricular activities like athletics and hands-on classroom experiences? Do you segment your communication by gender? Consider having a segment of recruitment materials designed entirely for males. Institutions have long segmented other communication based on their enrollment goals. Perhaps it is time to develop a “male communication track” which highlights the features and advantages of your institution that are most likely to attract males.

Related to marketing is the way in which your institution conducts student search. It is not uncommon for institutions to tailor search purchases of ACT/SAT names by academic criteria. Examining your search filters may reveal a larger number of males just below your GPA/test score cut-off. Expanding your outreach may assist the institution in growing interest from qualified males who have not historically made it into your funnel.

Transfer populations

Another target market to enroll more male students is in the transfer market. Some research indicates men are more likely to delay college enrollment—opting instead for the military or vocation right out of high school.  Assuring your institution has transfer-friendly policies that are published online with the appropriate articulation agreements can help those who are seeking a transfer institution in their search.

Academic support and engagement

Achieving an equitable gender ratio for many campuses will not only require enrolling more new males, but also retaining a larger percentage of those students already on their campuses. Terry Musser, associate director of enrollment and operations for the Division of Undergraduate Studies at Penn State University, and her colleagues, studied college men who struggled in their transition to college. The study provided recommendations which were elaborated upon in my University Business article.

With the growing acknowledgement of males being at risk, some institutions have taken a more proactive approach to mentoring. One example is the Minority Male Mentoring Program (3MP) which was established in 2003 by the North Carolina Community College System. According to their website, the goal of the program is to achieve greater persistence, graduation, and/or transfer rates. Institutions that participate in the program facilitate interactions between males in the program and key college staff, provide career counseling, student-to-student coaching, and provide assistance in writing an academic plan.

Looking for data-driven insights on achieving gender balance?

Call Ruffalo Noel Levitz at 800.876.1117 for a free consultation or email ContactUs@RuffaloNL.com to make an appointment. Given the demographic challenges and shifts, achieving gender balance won’t happen by accident. Institutional leadership needs to calibrate expectations based on their current realities,  and prioritize strategic and tactical opportunities in both recruitment and student success initiatives based on data.

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