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Women's College Success: A Look Behind the Gender Gap

Young women are more likely to aspire to college, spend time in high school researching college options, and eventually enroll and graduate from college at higher rates than men.

The tendency for women to be more engaged in higher education goes back to the 1980s, despite research that shows males actually perform better on college-entrance exams and Advanced Placement tests.

Why the gender gap?

It may have something to do with men's lower tolerance for debt and their ability to get good jobs with a college degree, according to a new article in the academic journal, Gender and Society. "Gender, Debt, and Dropping Out of College," by Rachel Dwyer, Randy Hodson, and Laura McCloud found that women's comfort level for taking on debt for college was about $2,000 higher than men's threshold. After borrowing about $12,500, taking on more debt reduced men's likelihood of finishing a degree while women were more likely to complete college with higher levels of debt.

The study provides some of the first evidence that debt-financed higher education intersects with gender to create different outcomes for men and women.

Other researchers note that the benefits of college may not be so clear to men. Women face more of a disadvantage entering the job market without a college education. While one in five men with a college degree (age 25-34) earned less than the average man with just a high school diploma, only one in seven women who graduated from college made less money than their female counterparts with just a high school education, according to a 2010 report from the Center for American Progress. So, women may be more motivated to invest in education because of the long-term benefit to their careers.

A new book, The Rise of Women, published by the Russell Sage Foundation in March looks further at trends with gender and education. An article in Inside Higher Ed quotes co-author Thomas DiPrete saying that young men are "overly optimistic" about their ability to earn a livable salary without as much education, causing them to "underinvest" in schoolwork, lowering their academic performance and probability of completing college.

As early as kindergarten, girls are more engaged in school and have better average social and behavioral skills than boys. This leads to higher grades for girls at each stage of school and explains why girls are more likely to earn a degree.

The book explains that schools with strong academic climates can make a difference.

"We really need schools that set high expectations, that treat students as individuals—not just as gendered groups—and also motivate students to invest in their education so that they can reach the big returns of a college degree that exist in today's labor market," Claudia Buchmann, co-author and sociology professor at Ohio State University, said in the Inside Higher Ed article.

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