How the College Gender Gap Might Change the Economy

This article is part of our latest DealBook special report on the trends that will shape the coming decades.

Walk across any college campus these days, and you will notice a striking gender imbalance: There are roughly three women students for every two men, according to data from the educational nonprofit National Student Clearinghouse.

It’s the result of a decades-long trend, in which women have not only closed the historical gender gap in educational attainment, but have surpassed the college-going rates of men. And that trend doesn’t appear to be slowing down: The latest enrollment numbers for spring 2021 show a record gap between the sexes.

For younger generations of men and women, the opening act of their adult lives is likely to follow quite different scripts. It’s a difference likely to echo through their later years, leading today’s young adults to make different romantic choices than earlier generations, to choose different family forms, and to make career decisions that will fundamentally reshape the economy. The rising gender gap in higher education might turn out to be one of the most transformative trends of our time.

The college gender gap is one of those slow-boiling trends that has built over several decades, and it reflects women pursuing higher education at greater rates than ever before, while college-going rates among men have stalled for reasons that mystify experts. The gap in graduation rates is even larger, because male undergraduates are less likely to complete their degree.

Despite that plateau in the share of young men going to college, their failure to invest more in higher education than earlier generations stands at odds with the usual historical pattern in which each cohort gets more education than its predecessors. Even more puzzling, this has occurred during a period in which the career and financial benefits of a college degree have grown dramatically. Women largely have responded to this market signal, but men have not.

Women have not only closed the historical gender gap in educational attainment, but have surpassed the college-going rates of men.Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

These long-running trends are not unique to the United States. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, women are more likely to have a tertiary degree than men in all 38 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (The O.E.C.D. is a club of mainly high-income, industrialized nations.)

Recent Issues on America’s College Campuses

Slavery Ties: Harvard released a 134-page report on the universty’s four centuries of ties to slavery, in an effort to begin redressing the wrongs of the past.Affirmative Action: As the Supreme Court prepares to decide on the lawfulness of two race-conscious admissions programs, a lawyer who helped draft Texas’s abortion ban offered a new path to detractors of affirmative action.Princeton Controversy: The university said it dismissed a tenured professor due to his inappropriate conduct with a student. He claims his criticism of a campus protest group is the real issue.Tuition: After a plan for free community college failed to gain traction in Congress, New Mexico is taking the lead in the tuition-free movement.

Women became a majority of college students in 1979, and the trend line has continued rising. While this gender gap has stopped widening over recent years, it has also shown no signs of reversing. Moreover, the latest data suggest that the pandemic has led more men than women to opt out of college.

Women have also edged ahead in prestigious programs like medicine, law, and masters and doctoral degrees. While men still hold the lead in business schools, women are gaining ground. And so the usual hothouses that grow captains of industry and political leaders are now dominated by women — though men are still a majority of students in some of the highest paying fields like business, computer science and engineering.

To date, women have not seen the full rewards of their rising education levels, as their pay continues to lag behind that of men. Partly, this is because other factors, including discrimination, remain at play. Partly, it reflects choices that women have made in response to their greater family burdens. And partly, this is an unfinished revolution. While young women are earning more degrees than young men, across the whole labor force — which includes older cohorts — educational attainment is roughly equal. The structure of high-paying jobs will slowly adapt to better fit the needs of women as they become a more dominant share of the educated work force.

A key to forecasting what all of this means for the future is to ask who these highly educated women will marry, if they marry at all, and what function marriage will play in their lives. It’s a question that also matters for the economy, because work and family life are closely intertwined.

So why is that question so important? History provides some useful context. During the “I Love Lucy” era, marriage was often a bargain in which a husband provided his wife with a steady income; in exchange, she oversaw the domestic sphere, providing meals, child care and a clean house.

That division of labor reflected prevailing social norms, the limited economic opportunities available to women, and the realities of childbirth and nursing. But it was also partly an economic response, and just as workers at a company tend to specialize in different tasks, so too husband and wife invested heavily in their respective occupations as “earner” and “homemaker.”

Economic forces shape not only the roles we take within relationships, but our choice of partners. A version of your grandmother’s adage that “opposites attract” reflected the reality that in this earlier time of traditional marriage, men and women specialized in different spheres, and played different roles requiring different skills. College-educated women had the wrong qualifications for this sort of marriage market, and so often remained unmarried, even as college-educated men had high marriage rates.

Taylor Bednar, a chemistry graduate student, works in a lab at The Ohio State University in Columbus, OH this year.Credit…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Through the second half of the 20th century, that traditional model of marriage unraveled, and marriages became more egalitarian. As the labor market opportunities for women expanded, the traditional division of labor within households made less sense. Greater equality in the labor market both caused and was caused by greater equality in marriage.

The roles that husbands and wives played became more similar. The role of a “domestic specialist” was replaced by a couple who could each pitch in (albeit still unequally). And aspects of the domestic specialist’s role were replaced by cleaning services, cheap clothing imported from abroad, and dinners prepared by Trader Joe’s. It is likely not a coincidence that egalitarian marriages which brought less distinct gender roles coincided with the push for same-sex marriage.

Relationships also changed. A husband who marries with the expectation that his spouse will also have a career is less likely to search for a good homemaker, and more likely hoping for a good earner.

So too, a wife may be more attracted by a potential spouse who shares her interests, rather than one offering only to bring home the bacon. This meant that college graduates became increasingly likely to marry their fellow college graduates.

It’s a pattern that’s also connected to another important trend of this era — rising income inequality. As college graduates increasingly married other college graduates, earning power became concentrated within households, rather than being more evenly distributed across them.

So far, the story is one of greater gender equality in the market supporting equality within the household, and vice versa. But looking forward, what are the likely consequences of the widening inequality that will follow from women accumulating more education than men?

Education doesn’t just expand your horizons, it also provides enormous economic power, and college graduates can expect, on average, to earn roughly a million dollars more over their careers than high school graduates, according to a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

The simple mathematics of more women than men earning college degrees means that many highly educated women will either have to partner with less educated men, or forgo partnership. We currently live in an era of work and family, but this might presage a harder choice between work or family, and consequently a lower birthrate.

Marriage must once again adapt, or become a relic of the past. If husband and wife — or partners of any gender — are once again going to bring different skills and earning power to their partnership, then they’re likely to redefine separate roles within their relationship.

So how will people negotiate their new roles? You won’t read about any of this in the day-to-day headlines, because demographics evolve slowly, and so these changes will play out slowly.

Reshma Saujani, CEO of Girls Who Code, carries her son while working from home in New York in March of 2021.Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

The idea that people invest in their careers with an eye to their future family decisions suggests that we can read the tea leaves of the future labor market by looking particularly closely at the career and coupling decisions of today’s 20-somethings.

Already we see that this group is postponing marriage until their careers are established, and hopefully the wisdom that comes with age means they’re partnering more intentionally. Young couples are also delaying having children, a trend assisted by technologies like in vitro fertilization.

The pandemic also provides some clues about the future. The primal scream of working mothers as schooling went remote suggests that already their career commitments leave little extra time for domestic obligations. Moms picked up more of the burden than dads; while relationships are changing, they’re doing so slowly. Something has to give, and while it could be women’s careers, if they’re out-earning their spouses, it may be their partner’s work instead.

Justin Wolfers is a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan and a host of the “Think Like an Economist” podcast. @justinwolfers