Are Women Smarter Than Men? College-Enrollment Trends Suggest So

The number of bachelor's degrees earned by women jumped by 70 percent — compared with 5 percent for men — between 1975 and 2001.

Studies show that women are now outnumbering men among college graduates.

At graduation ceremonies across the country this month, colleges handed out 200,000 more degrees to women than men, according to Tom Mortensen, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, who has been studying enrollment trends for the last decade.

"There has been a longtime record of significant progress and gains in education among women," he said in an interview with National Public Radio. Between 1975 and 2001, the number of bachelor's degrees earned by women jumped by 70 percent, compared with a 5 percent climb for men, Mortensen reported in his 2003 study, "What's Wrong With the Guys?" According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of females enrolling in college after high school increased by 20 percent from 1967 to 2000, while the number of men enrolling has decreased by 4 percent.

The effects of the trend are also being felt internationally. In 16 countries across the world, female grad rates surpass males, while men earning degrees outnumber women in only six industrialized countries.

In the U.S., the imbalance is most prominent among blacks, Mortensen said. In 2000, black women earned twice as many bachelor's degrees as black men.

"We seem to know how to encourage, motivate and prepare young women for the private-job sector, but there's really no conversation going on about what we ought to be doing to prepare our boys," Mortensen said. "Men don't seem to be getting the same message — that the world is changing and they need to get more education in order to be adequately employed later on in life."

Kevin Carey, director of policy research at Education Trust-West, noted that once enrolled, women are significantly more likely to graduate than men.

"There are essentially no economic opportunities for women without an advanced education," he said. "There are at least some left for men in manual labor or trade-oriented jobs where you can earn a decent living, but uneducated women have no options in this modern economy — I think they know that, and that's why they're more inclined to go [to college]."

Also, college enrollment is at an all-time high of 16 million students in the U.S., according to a March report issued by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "Some studies suggest up to 80 percent of all high-school graduates will enroll in some type of post-secondary education by the age of 25," Carey noted. In 2004, Asians had the highest continuation rate among ethnic groups — at 76 percent — while whites came in second at 68 percent, Hispanics at 61 percent, and blacks at 61 percent.

There has also been a significant rise in the number of minorities who graduate from college, yet there still remains a significant gap between minorities and whites. "Less than half of all minority students who enroll in college graduate within six years," he said. Contributing factors can include the rising cost of tuition, difficulties adjusting socially, and a lack of academic preparation in high school.

Despite the adversity, Latinos have made significant headway. In the 1990s, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to Hispanics rose by 105 percent, while the number of master's degrees increased by 128 percent.

In April, Alberto Gonzalez, chairman of the board of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, introduced legislation to boost grant funding to $175 million for colleges that have at least 25 percent Hispanic enrollment. According to a 2004 report from the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos are the fastest-growing college-enrollment group and now represent 11 percent of students in higher education.

Still, studies show that many students arrive at college unprepared, and many institutions turn a blind eye to the number of students dropping out. "I think the colleges have gotten complacent because more and more people come in every year, and as long as there are enough of them paying tuition, it doesn't really matter if they don't graduate," Carey said. According to a recent Manhattan Institute report, two-thirds of students leave high school unprepared for higher education.

But in order to combat the problem, many public schools are adopting college-preparatory courses as the default curriculum in order to prepare students for the rigorous coursework of a university.

"Not everyone wants to go to college," Carey said. "But most people do, and everyone should [be equipped] to succeed."

For one young Latina woman's story about heading off to college and how that has created trouble at home for her, check out "My Life Translated: College Dreams," premiering Monday, May 23 at 6:30 p.m. ET.