Teenagers’ poor reading skills help predict why fewer men are attending college
A newly published study found that boys’ poor reading skills in adolescence, coupled with social attitudes towards women attending college, may help explain why fewer men than boys. women enroll in higher education.
The study, “Gender Differences in Pathways to Higher Education,” was conducted by David Geary of the University of Missouri and Gijsbert Stoet of the University of Essex. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Geary and Stoet used three international databases as the basis for their study:
- Data on post-secondary enrollment between 2011-2017 from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD);
- National reading scores for 15 and 16 year olds from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA); and
- Social attitudes towards women pursuing university studies based on this element of the World Values Survey: “A university education is more important for a boy than for a girl”.
In total, data was drawn from 11 to 18 countries which included a total of 446,559 boys and girls. The PISA data (of young people aged 15 and 16) collected in 2006, 2009 and 2012 were matched with the respective data on enrollment in higher education 5 years later (i.e. 2011, 2014 and 2017). Data on global values were based on representative samples (m = 28,207) from the same countries for which PISA data were available.
“Reading scores are important for boys and girls, and we know that girls, on average, perform better on reading tests,” said Geary, professor emeritus of psychological sciences at UM Curators.
“Here, we looked at a snapshot of the reading performance of boys and girls at age 15,” he said. “And with an understanding of the social attitude in various countries regarding girls going to college, we can predict the ratio of males to females going to college five years later.”
On average, girls scored about thirty points better than boys on objective reading tests, a substantial difference of about 0.3 standard deviation. And in all of the countries studied, the average impact of adolescent reading scores on postsecondary enrollment was about four times as strong as social attitudes toward girls attending university.
The results pave the way for a better understanding of the likelihood of men and women to enroll in post-secondary education. Poor reading skills are a bigger barrier for men than for women, while discriminatory social attitudes are a bigger barrier for women than for men.
The authors use Mexico to illustrate the differential influence of the two factors. Mexico enjoys rough parity in post-secondary education (in 2017, 49% of students were men). This parity results from one of the less positive attitudes towards university attendance for women, combined with Mexican boys who do not read as well as Mexican girls. “In other words, in Mexico both boys and girls are considerably disadvantaged, but their disadvantages cancel each other out in terms of schooling, leading to apparent equity. The implication is that there are many women in Mexico who are well suited for college but who do not enroll due to discriminatory social attitudes. At the same time, there are more men than women in Mexico who cannot continue their education at university due to their relatively poor reading skills.
Although girls consistently performed better than boys on reading measures and several other language-related skills (documented in Geary’s book, Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sexual Differences, 3rd Edition forthcoming by the American Psychological Association in August), they were for decades less likely to go to college. However, starting in the 1980s in the United States, the number of women in higher education began to exceed the number of men enrolled, and this gender difference continued. As American attitudes towards women attending college have become more liberal, the considerable reading advantage girls held over boys has grown and university populations have become predominantly female. .
Developed countries vary in the degree of under-representation of men, but the OECD average is around 45% of male students. This trend is true for the United States, where in 2018, women made up 56% of undergraduates, 2.2 million more than men undergraduates. Policymakers have sought the reasons for this gap because they recognize the many negative implications for adults who are ill-prepared to compete in the modern workforce.
While Geary was not convinced that the gap between reading skills and higher education could be easily bridged, he stressed that early intervention was essential and suggested that something like enrichment programs that occur. have been shown to be effective in increasing the number of girls pursuing STEM studies and careers may be needed to help boys improve their reading interests and skills.
“The practical implication is that equity in college enrollment is way out of reach right now,” Geary said. “There is no good reason to expect that national reading levels for either sex will be raised enough over the next decade to change schooling patterns. The way to counter this is to improve reading skills, but this improvement will have to start early in life. The reading gap between boys and girls is there from the start of schooling, even at preschool.
Geary told me the findings may even have implications for how students respond to the long school disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. He predicts that boys might show steeper declines and slower recovery in academic skills than girls, adding an additional downstream disadvantage related to boys’ relatively poor reading performance.