Why Men Are Hard to Help
Kalamazoo, Michigan, holds a special place in the hearts of both Glenn Miller fans and public-policy scholars. In 1942, Miller sang that he'd "got a gal" in Kalamazoo. Today, policy wonks have something even more precious: a well-evaluated free-college program. And it works — but only for women.
Thanks to a group of anonymous benefactors, students educated in the city's K-12 school system receive paid tuition at almost any college in the state. Other cities have similar initiatives, but the Kalamazoo Promise is unusually generous. It's also one of the few programs of its kind to have been robustly evaluated — in this case by Timothy Bartik, Brad Hershbein, and Marta Lachowska of the Upjohn Institute. They found that the Kalamazoo Promise made a major difference in the lives of its beneficiaries — more so than other, similar programs made in theirs.
But the average impact disguises a stark gender divide. According to the evaluation team, women in the program "experience very large gains," including an increase of 45% in college-completion rates, while "men seem to experience zero benefit." The cost-benefit analysis showed an overall gain of $69,000 per female participant — a return on investment of at least 12% — compared to an overall loss of $21,000 for each male participant. In short, for men, the program was both costly and ineffective.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell said the mark of a civilized man was the ability to weep over a column of numbers. For a policy wonk, these data might just do the trick.
I asked Hershbein what was behind the massive gender gap in Kalamazoo. Because he is a true scholar, his answer was, "we don't know." What he means is that the gap cannot be explained statistically, at least with easily observable factors like test scores or family background.
And it's not just the Kalamazoo Promise; a startling number of social programs seem to work well for girls and women, but not for boys and men — among which are a student-mentoring scheme in Fort Worth, Texas; a school-choice program in Charlotte, North Carolina; an income boost to low-wage earners in New York City; and many more.
The failure of these programs to help boys and men is a big problem, given that in many cases they are the ones who need the most help. But the problem rarely receives any attention, not least because almost nobody knows about it.
So why is this happening? Why are boys and men harder to help? Men themselves frequently provide a psychological explanation. "It's a mental thing," says Jonathan, a college junior who discussed the Kalamazoo Promise program with me over coffee. "The motivation for men is just not there anymore."
For what it's worth, I think Jonathan is onto something crucial. Women have fought a long battle against misogyny from without; now men are struggling to find motivation from within. Rather than external pressures, the challenge facing men is one of internal drive and direction. This makes the challenge of helping men rise and thrive in American society distinctly difficult for those in charge of public policy.
THE MALE MALAISE
In 1972, Congress passed Title IX — a landmark statute to promote gender equality in higher education. Quite rightly, too: At the time, there was a 13 percentage-point gap in the proportion of bachelor's degrees going to men compared to women. Just a decade later, the gap had closed. By 2019, the gender gap in bachelor's degrees was 15 points — wider than it had been in 1972, but in the opposite direction. Today, women far outperform men in the American education system.
The underperformance of boys in the classroom, especially black boys and those from poorer families, damages their prospects for employment and upward economic mobility. Reducing this inequality will not be easy given current trends, many of which worsened during the pandemic. In the United States, for example, the 2020 drop in college enrollment was seven times greater for male students than for female students. At the same time, male students struggled more than female students with online learning. As the extent of the learning loss becomes clearer in the years ahead, it will almost certainly have been greater for boys and men than it was for women and girls.
These gender differences in academic performance become apparent early. Girls are 14 percentage points more likely than boys to be "school ready" at age five, for example. This is a much bigger gap than the one between rich and poor children, or between black and white children, or even between those who attended preschool and those who did not. This disparity carries over to grade school, with a seven percentage-point gender gap in reading proficiency in the fourth grade widening to an 11-point gap by the end of eighth grade. In a study drawing on scores from the entire country, Stanford scholar Sean Reardon finds no gender gap in math scores from grades three through eight, but a big one in English. "In virtually every school district in the U.S.," he writes, "female students outperformed male students on [English Language Arts] tests." "In the average district," he continues, the gap is "roughly two-thirds of a grade level and is larger than the effects of most large-scale educational interventions."
By high school, the female lead has solidified. The most common high-school grade for girls is now an A; for boys, it's a B. Girls account for two-thirds of high-school students in the top 10% of their classes ranked by GPA, while the proportions are reversed at the bottom rung. To be sure, boys still perform better than girls on most standardized tests. But this gap has narrowed sharply in recent years — down to a 13-point difference in the SAT. For the ACT, the gap has all but disappeared. Of course, SAT and ACT scores are coming to matter less as colleges move away from their use in admissions. But whatever merits this move may have, it seems likely to further widen the gender gap in post-secondary education.
It should not come as a surprise that boys are also less likely than girls to graduate high school. In 2018, 88% of girls graduated on time (i.e., four years after enrolling), compared to 82% of boys. This overall graduation rate is just a little higher than the 80% graduation rate among economically disadvantaged students of both sexes.
One might think the graduation rates by gender were easy numbers to come by — a quick Google search away. But in fact, it took a small research project to obtain these data, and for reasons that are instructive. States are required by federal law to report high-school graduation rates by race, ethnicity, English proficiency, economic disadvantage, homelessness, and foster status. These statistics are invaluable for assessing trends for the groups at greatest risk of dropping out. But oddly enough, states do not have to report their results by sex. Obtaining the numbers cited above required scouring the data state by state.
Meanwhile, the labor market has become a more hostile place for many men — especially those with less education. In 1970, the wage of the typical American man who completed his education with a high-school diploma was over $50,000 in today's dollars. Now, it's less than $35,000. While the gender gap in earnings has narrowed, the class gap has widened. In fact, the wages of most men are lower today than they were in 1979, while women's wages have risen across the board.
This point cannot be overstated: The boys and men struggling the most are those at the sharp end of other inequalities. The ones we need to be worried about are not those of the upper middle class, who are flourishing in almost every respect, but the ones on the bottom half of the economic and social ladders.
Most men are not part of the elite, and even fewer boys are destined to take their place. As The Economist puts it, "the fact that the highest rungs have male feet all over them is scant comfort for the men at the bottom." Men at the top are still flourishing, of course, but men in general are not. And many of the attempts to help them are falling short.
One of the other studies that jumped off my desk in considering this evidence was an evaluation of a mentoring and support program called "Stay the Course" at Tarrant County College, a two-year community college in Fort Worth, Texas.
Community colleges are a cornerstone of the American education system, serving around 7.7 million students — largely from middle- and lower-class families. But there is a completion crisis in the sector: Only about half the students who enroll end up with a qualification (or transfer to a four-year college) within three years of enrolling. Many of these schools produce more dropouts than diplomas.
The good news is that there are programs, like Stay the Course, that can boost the chances of a student succeeding. The bad news is that, as the Fort Worth pilot shows, they might not work for men, who are most at risk of dropping out in the first place.
Among women, the Fort Worth initiative tripled associate-degree completion. This is a huge finding: That kind of effect is rare in any social-policy intervention. But as with free college in Kalamazoo, the program had no impact on college completion rates for men.
Why not? Again, the evaluators can only speculate. James Sullivan, one of the scholars examining the program, candidly admits, "we don't know." This is a recurrent sentiment among scholars working in the field. Sullivan's research team does note that the case managers assigned to work with students were all women. When a program relies heavily on a close one-to-one relationship, matching the gender of the provider and recipient may be an important factor.
But Stay the Course and the Kalamazoo Promise are just two among dozens of initiatives in education that seem not to benefit boys or men. An evaluation of three preschool programs — Abecedarian, Perry, and the early Training Project — for example, showed "substantial" long-term benefits for girls but "no significant long-term benefits for boys." Project READS, a North Carolina summer reading program, boosted literacy scores "significantly" for third-grade girls — giving them the equivalent of a six-week acceleration in learning — but there was a "negative and insignificant reading score effect" for boys.
These results carry over into high school and beyond. Students who attended their first-choice high school in Charlotte, North Carolina, after taking part in a school-choice lottery earned higher GPAs, took more Advanced Placement classes, and were more likely to go on to enroll in college than their peers — but the overall gains were "driven entirely by girls." A new mentoring program for high-school seniors in New Hampshire almost doubled the number of girls enrolling in a four-year college, but it had "no average effect" for boys. Urban boarding schools in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., boosted academic performance among low-income black students, but only female ones. College scholarship programs in Arkansas and Georgia increased the number of women earning a degree but had "muted" effects on white men and "mixed and noisy" results for black and Hispanic men.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Joshua Angrist, a Nobel Prize winner in economics who has spent a significant amount of time in the field, studied this last program, known as "Project STAR." The program provides extra learning support and financial assistance for college freshmen. Like the others, Project STAR gave a big boost to women's academic performance — in terms of higher GPAs, more credits, and lower rates of academic probation — but had "no effect on men." He tells me he "has no theory" about the gender gap — a more formal way of saying, "we don't know."
Back in 2009, Angrist and his co-authors wrote, "[t]hese gender differences in the response to incentives and services constitute an important area for further study." They do indeed. But as far as I can see, nobody has heeded the call. At the very least, these results suggest that policymakers and scholars need to be much more sensitive to differential effects by gender and their potential implications for program design.
Of course, there are programs that do show positive results for both genders, such as the community-college mentoring scheme Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), as well as some early education programs. But where there is a difference by gender, it is essentially always in favor of girls and women. The only real exception to this rule is in some vocational programs or institutions, which do seem to benefit men more than women — one among many reasons we need more of them.
"Make your mark in New York," wrote Mark Twain, "and you are a made man." That makes the city the perfect place to test a new program to help more men succeed in the workplace.
Beginning in 2013, the city's Paycheck Plus pilot attempted to do just that — providing around 3,000 childless participants with a wage bonus of up to $2,000. The research group MDRC performed a rigorous evaluation of the pilot and found "a relatively large positive effect on employment rates among women." However, it found "no detectable effect among men." Female participants also improved their health, while the men did not. The MDRC team describe the result for men as "somewhat disappointing." Given the hopes for the project and the falling wages and employment levels of lower-skilled men, this is an understatement.
There are broader policy implications here too. Paycheck Plus is seen as a trial run for a possible shift in national policy that would make the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) available to childless adults. This measure would not be cheap: A similar EITC expansion in the 2021 Build Back Better bill had a price tag of $13.5 billion per year.
An explicit goal of EITC expansion is to help less-skilled men. Gene Sperling, former national economic advisor to presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, argues that the policy change is "important to incentivizing younger men...to participate in the formal economy." But the Paycheck Plus pilot suggests that higher wage subsidies may draw more single women into the workforce than single men. That is not a bad outcome in itself, but it would constitute a failure to achieve a principal goal of the reform.
If wage subsidies don't work so well for men, what about worker training?
Sadly, the evaluation studies here make for grim reading. It's hard to find examples of government-funded training programs that work well for anyone, male or female, but the few programs that have managed to move the needle often skew toward women. A training program in Milwaukee, funded as a public-private venture, had a statistically significant, positive impact on the employment rates and earnings for participating women at the two-year mark, but not for the men. Workplace-based training programs and job-search assistance programs funded under the Job Training Partnership Act of 1982 produced a similarly positive impact for the earnings and educational attainment of female participants, but again, not for the male ones. Programs for dislocated workers funded by the Workforce Investment Act saw women obtain "greater benefits for participation," with their "quarterly earnings increment exceeding that of males." The value of training also had greater long-run positive impacts on earnings and employment for women than for men.
There is then a clear recurring pattern in studies of policy interventions, with stronger effects for girls and women than for boys and men. This pattern has profound implications for research and policy.
To start, it underscores the need for evaluators to include results disaggregated by gender in their studies. And when differences are found, they should be highlighted. Right now, they are often given scant attention. For instance, in the research brief based on the evaluation of the trio of training programs undertaken by Public/Private Ventures and published through the Aspen Institute, the gender gap was not mentioned. Even in the main report, the difference was only visible to readers who made it to Table 5 of Appendix D, on page 72.
Given the evidence that many programs are not working for half the population, responsible policymakers should question whether this money is being well spent. There is certainly enough evidence here to challenge any presumption in favor of gender-blind programs and services. Simply noting these disappointing findings, shrugging our shoulders, and continuing to spend money on them would be irresponsible.
POVERTY OF AMBITION
The hard question, of course, is why these initiatives have not worked for boys or men. The empirical evidence on this is weak. But Tyreese, a young black man making his way through community college in Kalamazoo, has thought through this question and come up with some answers.
Tyreese is exactly the kind of person the Kalamazoo Promise is intended to help: His father died when he was five years old, and two of his brothers are in prison. He observes major differences between the women and men around him. The first is one of motivation: "The women are so driven," he notes. "They know they have to provide for their family." A second factor is independence: "They [the women] don't really need a relationship; they can do it on their own." The third is persistence: "When stuff gets hard, the guys tend to run away. The girls don't." The fourth is planning: "Women tend to live in the future," he says, while "men tend to live in the present." Put these together — motivation, independence, persistence, and planning — and it's no wonder, to Tyreese at least, that women are doing better than men in school.
"I just felt like I was wasting my time in college" says Quamari, another of my interviewees in Kalamazoo. "I was depressed a lot. I just didn't have much of a drive." After dropping out of Kalamazoo Valley Community College, Quamari got a job working in a bank, but he was soon fired. So he returned to his studies, this time at Michigan State University in Lansing. Quamari hopes that a smaller, quieter city will make it easier for him to crack the books. After all, he says, "there is not a lot else to do here."
Quamari has had a staccato journey through higher education — stopping, switching, and restarting. He has changed his major many times, from accounting to orthodontics to interior design to sociology. Now he is hoping to go into psychology, having discovered music and art therapy as a potential career path. His story fits with the research suggesting that men are more likely to zigzag through the college years while women follow a straighter path. "Females are just working harder, doing better, asking more questions," he says.
Jalen, one of Kalamazoo's male success stories, agrees. He graduated with a bachelor's degree from Western Michigan University and says he always sought out female-dominated study groups because "you just knew they would get it done."
Motivation and ambition — which are almost impossible to capture quantitatively — are certainly a big part of the story: Young women are seizing opportunities with much greater zeal than young men.
Take studying abroad as an example. In recent decades, foreign study has become much more popular, with increasing numbers of undergraduates grabbing their passports and phrase books and heading overseas. And why not? Living in another country for a few months is a great opportunity for both learning and fun. A joint report by the American Institute for Foreign Study and the Institute of International Education extols the value of studying abroad, as one might expect. But they appear to be onto something: Employers do seem to like hiring graduates with broader horizons, and many of the skills honed in a foreign country seem to be useful later in life. But strikingly, female students are more than twice as likely as their male peers to study abroad. One might suspect that women are simply more likely to be interested in subjects offering more study-abroad options, like languages and the arts. But no — the study-abroad gender gap can be found in all subjects.
Once again, this gap has left researchers stumped. What we do know is that women appear to be motivated to study abroad by all kinds of factors, including having educated parents and taking classes focused on human diversity and difference. None of the factors, however, have any impact on men. One element that did seem to influence men's decisions about whether to study abroad was "peer interactions," but in a negative direction. Rather than pushing one another to hit the road, men appear to motivate each other to stay put.
The report does stress the need for a diverse and representative pool of students heading to other countries, and serious efforts have gone into reducing barriers to studying abroad for non-white students — who now make up three in 10 study-abroad students. There is no mention, however, of the two-to-one ratio of female to male students in study-abroad programs.
And it's not just studying overseas: There generally seems to be a greater spirit of adventure among young women. The same two-to-one gender imbalance can be seen in the numbers of individuals signing up for the Peace Corps, as well as its domestic equivalent, AmeriCorps.
Forget all the old stereotypes about men with wanderlust: Women are the explorers now. And as is so often the case in this field, nobody has a good explanation as to why.
HELPING MEN HELP THEMSELVES
All this may seem a long way from Kalamazoo, Michigan. But there is a common theme here. The problem is not that men have fewer opportunities; it's that they are not seizing them. The challenge seems to be a general decline in agency, ambition, and motivation.
These trends have not occurred in a vacuum; they are the result of a broad range of structural challenges plaguing our society. The education system is clearly less suited to boys than it is to girls. The labor market has become a tougher place for men as well. But there are some deeper cultural causes at work, too. In particular, the dramatic rebalancing of power relations between men and women over the last few decades has rendered old modes of masculinity — especially men's role as family breadwinner — obsolete. And as of yet, nothing has replaced them. The problem is not a lack of incentives in the narrow economic sense, but a loss of identity in a broader, cultural one.
Feminist writer Susan Faludi has pointed out that many men are "clinging to a phantom status." She's right, of course. But when the roles that created that status are thousands of years old, this should not surprise us. What is needed is to modernize our social institutions, especially those surrounding the family and fatherhood. This is not only for the sake of men themselves, but for society as a whole.
"Women are becoming more independent," reflects Quamari back in Kalamazoo, "more headstrong, willing to work for it. They know they need other options." By his own admission, Quamari struggles with this new world. He supports equality, but he is also part of a Christian denomination teaching that men should be the head of the household. He is torn between being the kind of man he has been told to be and the kind of man the world seems to want now.
He is not the only one. A common thread running through many of the challenges facing men is the culture shock of women's economic independence. To truly understand what's going on with boys and men, we need anthropologists at least as much as we need economists. And we need policymakers willing to face the facts — including the facts about which programs work best and which are failing their intended beneficiaries. Otherwise, we run the terrible risk that some of our boys and men won't just fall behind, but will end up beyond our reach.