Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Precursors to the Gender Gap in College Enrollment: Children's Aspirations and Expectations for Their Futures

Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Precursors to the Gender Gap in College Enrollment: Children's Aspirations and Expectations for Their Futures

Article excerpt

In light of the increasing gender gap in college enrollment, data from two waves of interviews with 115 elementary and middle school children were examined for developmental and gender differences in participants' aspirations and expectations for their futures. While there were no gender differences in children's educational aspirations or expectations, girls were more likely than boys to aspire to careers that require a college education, more likely to emphasize career advancement in their rationale for attending college, and less likely to choose sex-typed occupations. Implications for professional school counselors are discussed.


Within the past 20 years, a widening gender gap in college attendance and completion rates has received increasing attention in both the popular media (Fletcher, 2002; Fonda, 2000; Glenn, 2004; Poe, 2004) and the higher-education literature (American Council on Education Center for Policy Analysis, 2003; King, 2000, 2006; Reynolds, 2001). Described as a "stunning reversal" (Conlin, 2003, p. 1) of the gender gap that persisted for more than 300 years in American higher education, the current gender gap reflects women's increasing proportion of college enrollment, which first began to outpace men's in the late 1970s (King, 2000; Poe) and had increased to 56% by 2001 (Peter, Horn, & Carroll, 2005). Current estimates suggest this increase will continue through 2014, when women are projected to make up 58% of undergraduate enrollment (National Center for Education Statistics, 2005). Degree attainment rates reveal an equally wide disparity, with women earning 60% of associate's degrees and 57% of bachelor's degrees between 1980 and 2001 (Peter et al.). Although the gap is widest for 2-year and 4-year degrees, women have recently begun to outpace men in the attainment of graduate and professional degrees as well (King, 2000).

Gender differences in college enrollment and degree attainment are evident within every racial group in America (American Council on Education Center for Policy Analysis, 2003). However, the gender gap is widest for low-income students and students of color. Among Whites, a clear female majority has emerged during the past decade, with the percentage of male undergraduates dropping from 49% to 46% since 1996. This change is largely due to a decline in the percentage of low-income White students who are male, from 48% to 44% (King, 2006). Among students of color, women earn 60% of the degrees conferred to American Indian and Latino students and two thirds of the associate's and bachelor's degrees earned by African American students (Fletcher, 2002).

Although the long history of sexism in American higher education has resulted in resistance to viewing boys and men as underprivileged groups (Conlin, 2003; Poe, 2004), the obvious economic and social consequences associated with forgoing college have led researchers and social analysts to investigate potential contributors to the decline in men's relative proportion of undergraduate enrollment (Evelyn, 2002; Fonda, 2000; Reynolds, 2001). Of the most widely cited explanations, two have particular relevance for K-12 school personnel. The first emphasizes differences in the career aspirations and career maturity of boys and girls, stressing the inherent connection between career aspirations and educational aspirations (Glenn, 2004; Helwig, 2004; Phipps, 1995). The second emphasizes differences in boys' and girls' early school experiences and the effects of such differences on educational aspirations and attainment (Arbona, 2000; Reynolds; Trusty, 2004). Both explanations emphasize changes in gender roles during the past several decades.

Whereas traditional gender roles emphasized motherhood and homemaking for women while stressing career attainment for men, the women's movement of the 1970s focused attention on expanding opportunities for girls and women (Hannah & Kahn, 1989). …

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