“It only matters if you want it to matter”: the gender gap at Union University

Residence Life

“That’s the Union ratio, right there,” a student joked as he spotted his friend playing a board game with five girls in the Bowld Commons.

A quick perusal of Union University’s residence halls or a short walk around campus reveals what students seem to know already: the female students outnumber the male by a noticeable percentage. But what are the actual statistics?

Data from the institutional research department shows Union hovering at a 40 to 60 percent ratio of men to women undergraduates.
Data from the institutional research department shows Union hovering at a 40 to 60 percent ratio of men to women undergraduates.
According to fall enrollment data from Union University’s institutional research department, the undergraduate body has hovered at or around 40 percent men and 60 percent women since 2001, as far back as data is available.

“The university considers fall data to be a snapshot of its activities,” said Jimmy Davis, Hammons Chair and vice president for institutional effectiveness, in an email. “We only began reporting the data by campus in fall 2013.  Since most of the undergraduates are at Jackson, the other percentages give a good indication of the distribution.”

Of the approximately 1,800 undergraduate students currently enrolled at the Jackson campus, 39 percent are men and 61 percent women, the largest gap in 10 years.

That translates to 1,117 female undergraduates to 706 male, or 1.6 females for each male.

But is Union an anomaly, or part of a larger trend? A quick internet search yields an abundant crop of articles on the growing numbers of women seeking higher education, not just in the United States but in most developed countries around the world.

“It is fairly well known that women today outnumber men in American colleges,” reports the National Bureau of Economic Research. “In 2003, there were 1.35 females for every male who graduated from a four-year college. That contrasts with 1960, when there were 1.6 males for every female graduating from a U.S. four-year college.”

The report adds that “women now outnumber men in college in almost all rich nations.”

Forbes Magazine indicates that, on a national scale, public universities have the most balanced ratio of male to female students, 43.6 to 56.4 percent, while private universities weigh in at 40.7 to 59.3 percent—placing Union only slightly below the national average for male undergraduate enrollment.

The articles by Forbes and NBER cite a variety of socioeconomic reasons for this shift, including higher divorce rates, later marriages and a difficult economy, which has contributed to a growing number of males joining the workforce immediately after high school.

Nina Heckler, assistant professor of sociology and department chair at Union, agreed.

“With the slow economy we have right now, I think a lot of young men are choosing to go work, maybe find an apprenticeship, maybe join the military, in lieu of going to college right away,” she said.

Heckler said this “reversal gender gap” has been a trend since the late 1970s. By the late ‘80s, she said, women were outnumbering men in undergraduate programs and, by the late ‘90s, surpassed them in master’s degree programs as well.

“Currently at the Ph.D. level, we’re at about 50 percent, but they say in the next couple of years, women will surpass men,” Heckler said.

There are more opportunities for women in the workforce than there were 30 or 40 years ago, Heckler said, especially since the wide availability of birth control means they can wait longer to start a family. She also said girls tend to perform better academically from kindergarten through high school.

“Our system is almost set up so that, since they do better in so many different courses, [girls] feel more confident in going on to an institution of higher education,” Heckler said.

If the trend continues, universities will “have to recruit harder for men,” Heckler said. Just as college pamphlets once deliberately featured women to attract a new demographic, she said, they will have to start featuring more men.

“We’re going to have to put more emphasis on athletics to get more men, and probably more emphasis on science and math,” she said. Heckler said she thinks developing a program in video game design would also draw male interest.

Bryan Carrier, vice president for student life and dean of students, agreed that the courses of study emphasized at Union may contribute to the gender gap.

“Think of our biggest programs, where the draw is,” Carrier said of Union. “Nursing, education. They’re all predominantly female programs.”

He also said men tend to “do a little bit more value shopping” when it comes to education and thus are more likely to steer clear of the higher price tag attached to private Christian universities.

Carrier said the gender ratio does affect student life programming, with participation in female-oriented events like Mugs and Kisses naturally exceeding that of events aimed at males, such as Watters Great Outdoors. But the university tries to maintain a balance, he said.

“I think it helps to have an active male Greek system,” Carrier said. “That changes the dynamic some because there’s a larger voice for a smaller population. I think that helps with the feel that there are places of belonging and programs that guys would be interested in [at Union].”

Carrier said traditional means of attracting male students, such as a football program, would not be financially rewarding for the university at this time.

“[A football team] would be a huge boost in the male/female ratio, but at what cost?” he said. “Do you lower admission standards to increase that ratio?”

Eventually, Carrier said, he would like to see measures taken to bring in more male students.

“But is it the number one priority? Absolutely not,” he said. “There are other things that have to take precedence over a ratio.”

Kaylee Gibson, sophomore public relations major, said students are definitely aware of the gender gap.

“People talk about it more than I think is even necessary,” she said. “A lot of times the concern is that people won’t be able to find a spouse, which sometimes I think is a bit of trivial concern. … If God has a spouse for you, you’re going to find them.”

Gibson said some girls are so intent on finding a spouse that they focus less on their education and feel like they have to compete with other girls, which can cause drama between people who might otherwise be friends. She also said the gender gap has lowered standards for guys.

“There are girls who are just kind of settling for the first thing that comes their way, which isn’t always a good thing,” Gibson said. “Definitely I feel like guys don’t have to work as hard to get a girlfriend or get a date, and there are girls who are working really hard just to get anybody’s attention.”

While an equal population of men and women would be ideal, Gibson said, Union students have the opportunity for a great education regardless of numbers.

“I think it’s probably a good shift from where we’ve been in the past when there were very few women in higher education,” she said. “I think it’s great that more women are being encouraged to go to college and encouraged to find a career.”

Kevin Morgan, senior psychology major, said being in the minority has never bothered him.

“It’s just the way the school is,” he said. “I came here for the student life and for the professors that I thought were so cool, so the idea that there’s this ratio … is kind of just secondary.”

People tend to think the gender gap is much more dramatic than it actually is, Morgan said. He said he has heard people quote numbers as extreme as six to one.

“Even on preview tours, people are like, ‘Oh, yeah, our ratio is this to this, so…’ And then all the little boys blush and stuff,” he said with a laugh. “At first it is kind of a little bit of a shock just to realize, ‘Oh, yeah, there are this many dorms for guys and then the rest of the world of Union is for girls.’”

Morgan said there is a student perception that Union girls become “desperate” because they have fewer dating options and guys “aren’t direct because there are too many girls to choose from.”

There is “a little bit” of truth to the stories, he said.

“I think Union has a culture where people typically date for a while, get engaged, then get married not long after graduation,” Morgan said. “So if that’s your model, then I think the girls … might be more inclined to let things move more quickly than they might have, say, were they already out of school.”

Morgan said the gender gap affects residence life and student ministries like LifeGroups, just because female leaders will always have more students under their care.

“But I think the guy-girl ratio is only affecting the minutia of Union University,” he said. “I mean, if you just look at our school, the retention rates are good, our graduation rates are good, all that stuff. I don’t think the ratio really matters unless you want it to matter.”

Image courtesy of Jimmy Davis
About Kate Benedetti 30 Articles
Staff writer Kate Benedetti ('14) is a creative writing major and journalism minor from Collierville, Tennessee. Her passions include Motown, bad science fiction, and ice cream sandwiches. Peeves include misplaced apostrophes and flagrant abuse of the word "meme."