This weekend, CNN’s Michael Smerconish did a short video segment on the falling number of men who are getting college degrees. As per the cable news formula, Smerconish found someone to frame this issue in the most apocalyptic rhetoric possible. In this case, that was NYU Stern marketing professor Scott Galloway. Galloway told Smerconish that men without college degrees wouldn’t be able to find sexual partners. They would then, in a frenzy of rage and baffled entitlement, destroy the country.
“The most dangerous person in the world is a broke and a lone male, and we are producing too many of them,” Galloway warned darkly. “The mating inequality that is going to come out of this dearth of men in college poses an existential risk to our economy and our society.”
The fact that fewer men, and fewer people in general, are pursuing a college degree is a sign that our institutions and government are failing the public. But gross gender stereotypes and fear-mongering makes the problem worse, not better. You don’t help men, or women, or anyone, by painting males as uncontrollable rabid dogs obsessed only with breeding and destruction.
Again, there is a real problem with falling college numbers. Since 2011, enrollment in college has dropped by 2.6 million, or 13 percent. Part of that is due to falling birth rates. But xenophobic politics have also put a brake on immigration. Meanwhile, the cost of college has jumped more than 25 percent in the last decade, putting tuition out of reach for many students. Covid has exacerbated the trend. As many as a quarter of students postponed college because of the pandemic, and some of those will probably never enroll.
The decline in enrollment has been gendered; men especially have been turning their back on college. Currently men make up about 40 percent of college students. Women made up only 40 percent of college students in 1970, when open sexism kept them out of universities.
The fact that women now face fewer social barriers to entering college is something to celebrate. But what’s discouraging men from enrolling? Jon Marcus at the Hechinger Report suggests that massive college debt has been a major problem for men. Many men feel responsible for being primary earners for their families. In part as a result, they tend to want to be self-sufficient immediately. They therefore enter the workforce immediately, rather than waiting decades to get a degree and pay off debt.
Another problem for men is that they are targeted by disciplinary policies, inside schools and out. Sociologist Jayanti Owens has found that boys in elementary and secondary school tend to be sanctioned more harshly than girls for the same offenses. These early sanctions can have long-term effects on boys’ ability to complete high school and go on to college. Similarly, men tend to be sentenced to longer prison sentences for the same crime than women. These sentencing disparities are part of the reason that about 90 percent of the prison population in the US is male.
Men are more heavily policed than women in part because men are stereotyped as violent, dangerous, uncontrollable, and unintelligent. This is especially the case for Black men, who are imprisoned at 5 times the rate of white men. Latino men are imprisoned at 1.4 times the rate of white men. And boys born to the bottom 10 percent of earners are 20 times more likely to end up in prison than children born to the top 20 percent of earners.
So, when Scott Galloway suggests that the “broke and lone male” is an “existential” threat, he isn’t helping men get into college. He’s reinforcing the very stereotypes about working class men that lead to hyper-policing of marginalized men both inside and outside of schools. When he talks about men as if they’re unthinking animals driven by the urge to “mate,” he dehumanizes them. For Galloway, the problem isn’t economic hurdles or the structure of public schools. It’s men themselves, who are violent and uncontrollable.
These kinds of gender stereotypes harm women as well. Galloway frames women’s success as a problem to solve and presents women’s bodies as a kind of scarce resource to be redistributed. “We talk about income inequality; we have mating inequality in this country,” he says, as if men are somehow entitled to sexual access (and, for that matter, as if everyone in the country is heterosexual.) For Galloway, men are dangerous, entitled predators who must be placated and soothed by nurturing, sacrificing women. It’s a simplistic vision of gender determinism which harms everyone.
We could do a great deal to increase male college enrollment and to make it easier for people of every gender to pursue their dreams. We need to lower tuition costs and eliminate student debt. We also need to provide public elementary and secondary schools with the resources and incentives to move away from draconian disciplinary policies. And, last, least, but still worthwhile, we need to stop paying attention to ignorant doomsayers like Scott Galloway.