Two University of Michigan professors (see below) found that inequality in educational attainment has risen more sharply among women than among men. For those entering college in the 1980s, the gap between men and women was small: about 2 percent more females in the top income group graduated from college than did males; and about 2 percent fewer females in the lowest income group graduated than did males. But for those entering college in the 2000s, the gender gap widened significantly especially at the top of the income distribution, with 13 percent more women than men in the highest income group graduating from college.
This female advantage in educational attainment is not a new phenomenon, the researchers point out. More women than men graduated from college in all birth cohorts since 1950. But the gap has grown recently, with the overall college graduation rate for women now ten points higher than the rate for men–32 percent compared to 22 percent.
The recent increase in women’s college graduation reflects rapid achievement gains among women from upper-income families who have outperformed their brothers, according to Bailey. Why this is the case is not entirely clear.
Whatever the reasons for the growing gender gap in college graduation, the growing income gap has some clear policy implications, according to the authors.
“Inducing more low-income youth into college will not, by itself, serve to close income gaps in educational attainment,” they conclude. “Even if rates of college entry were miraculously equalized across income groups, existing differences in persistence would still produce large gaps in college completion.”
Martha Bailey is an assistant professor of economics in the U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) and a faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR). Dynarski is an associate professor at the U-M Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and the U-M School of Education, and also holds appointments in the Department of Economics and ISR.