Maureen Downey: Where the boys aren’t — college graduations

From the commentary: College grads not only make more money on average; they live longer, according to research.

College graduation
University of Georgia students react during the closing ceremony of the Spring undergraduate commencement at Sanford Stadium, Friday, May 12, 2023, in Athens.
(Jason Getz/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

I attended two graduation ceremonies earlier this month, including the University of Georgia gala replete with fireworks at Sanford Stadium. At both events, I was struck with how many more women than men crossed the stage.

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As my husband saw the UGA grads line up in our daughter’s major, he joked if she had wanted an all-women’s environment, she could have saved us all the parking fees (and parking tickets) by walking the four blocks from our house to nearby Agnes Scott College.

Afterward, I looked at the latest University System of Georgia enrollment data for the spring semester that just concluded. The total UGA undergraduate and graduate enrollment was 39,373 students, 59% of whom were female.

The gender tilt in favor of women at UGA is even more pronounced at other public campuses in Georgia. Females comprise close to 70% of the enrollment at South Georgia State, Valdosta State University, the College of Coastal Georgia, the University of West Georgia and Georgia Southwestern State University. Three-quarters of the students at Albany State University are women. Nearly 60% of the students at Georgia Southern University are female.

The numbers are similar at some of Georgia’s largest private universities. About 60% of  Emory University’s students are women. Nearly 77% of Clark Atlanta University’s undergraduate students are women.


The sole campus in the University System where males outpace females is Georgia Tech, which is nearly 68% male. The only school with gender balance is Kennesaw State University where women account for slightly more than half of the enrollment. The ratios at those two campuses likely reflect their specialty areas that still tend to draw more male students, such as engineering, computer science and construction-related fields.

If you want to understand the prevalence of women at our public campuses, go back to the high school pipeline. The pipeline leaks too many kids along the way to college enrollment, especially boys.

In March of this year, there were 58,640 male 12th grade rs in the state’s public schools, according to the state Department of Education enrollment updates. (The total number of 12th graders statewide in March was 117,497.) When these current 12th graders began high school , there were 75,454 boys in the mix. That means 17,000 of those freshman boys who where there in the spring of 2020 vanished by their senior year — more than 1 out of 5.

These boys may have moved or dropped out. Some died. Suicides are surging among male teens and young men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We are also losing boys to guns. Boys accounted for 83% of the 2021 child and teen gun deaths, including homicides and suicides, according to an April Pew Research Center report. The car crash death rate for male drivers ages 16–19 years was three times as high as the death rate for females in the same age group in 2020, according to Insurance Institute for Highway Safety data.

Yes, girls also fall off the path to high school completion, but not at the same rate. In the March enrollment count, this year’s 12th grade class included 58,857 girls, down from 69,471 four years ago in the freshman class. That is a fade-out of 10,614 female students since March of 2020 or 15%.

Nationwide, concern is growing over a widening gap in male and female academic attainment. Among the disparities revealed in federal data : For every 100 women enrolled in U.S. colleges at all levels, there are 77 men enrolled. For every 100 women who earn a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree, there are 74 men. While 51% of women graduate college within four years, only 41% of men do so, according to the National Center for Education Statistics .

A typical response to these disparate academic trends is that men can succeed without a college degree. And they can if they go into a narrow slice of high-paying blue-collar jobs, including plumbing, HVAC and construction.

Still, despite the increased public skepticism about whether a college diploma is worth it, the median economic value-added of a bachelor’s degree doubled over the value of a high school degree after 1983, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.


U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, famously once contended that a college degree was overhyped, proclaiming. “Welders make more money than philosophers.” It wasn’t true then or now.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that welders now earn a median salary of $47,540 , while college grads in philosophy earn $55,000 .

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College grads not only make more money on average; they live longer, according to research. My uncle was a self-employed plumber who used to tell me and my brothers that he spent a lot of his days in crawl spaces and had the bad knees to show for it.

“Go to college,” he advised us. “The view is nicer and it’s easier on your back.”

Maureen Downey is a columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This commentary is the columnist's opinion. Send feedback to:

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