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Colleges struggle with falling enrollment -- especially male students

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Colleges and universities are struggling with falling enrollment, especially among men. Male student attendance has dropped 6% in the past few years, and at the University of Vermont, women students outnumber men nearly 2 to 1. No news that women outnumber men on campus, but wow - 2 to 1. From Vermont Public and the Hechinger Report, Liam Elder-Connors reports on how UVM is trying to turn that around.

LIAM ELDER-CONNORS, BYLINE: The student center in Burlington was buzzing on a Thursday morning. Students grabbed coffee, caught up with friends and worked on laptops. This is Vermont's largest university, with 12,000 undergraduates. The surprising thing here is that more than 7,500 of them are women.

MELINDA WETZEL: I will say, I was at the gym the other day.

ELDER-CONNORS: Melinda Wetzel, a junior, says she does notice that gender gap.

WETZEL: And most of the time, like, if you think about going to a gym, you think of, like, oh, no, like, there's going to be a lot of scary guys there. I looked around, and I actually pointed out to my friend, like, whoa - look at all the girls here. This is great.

ELDER-CONNORS: Both nationally and here at UVM, there are several factors leading to the drop in male enrollment. Boys are now less likely to graduate from high school. Surveys show that men are more likely to think they don't need a degree to get a job. That crossed John Truslow's mind.

JOHN TRUSLOW: Geez, dude, that was money.

ELDER-CONNORS: Truslow, who is shooting pool in the student center, thought about going into the trades or the military, but ultimately decided college was a better option. The UVM senior also says the cost of college was a barrier for some of his male high school classmates.

TRUSLOW: But most of the ones that just directly didn't go to college was mostly academically. They just weren't feeling school, and they wanted to do something else.

ELDER-CONNORS: Nationally, only 41% of college students are men - an all-time low. Higher education officials say dwindling male enrollment presents a problem for their long-term sustainability.

JAY JACOBS: We are trying to broaden our pipeline wherever we can.

ELDER-CONNORS: Jay Jacobs is UVM's vice provost for enrollment management. He says research shows adults with higher education tend to be healthier.

JACOBS: We know that an undereducated male population leads to some serious societal problems - right? - be that depression, alcoholism or substance abuse.

ELDER-CONNORS: UVM isn't alone in trying to attract more men. At the University of Montana, where 58% of the school's 10,000 undergraduates are women, recent marketing emails highlight its hunting class, forestry program and outdoor recreation opportunities. Other colleges have added sports teams. Richard Reeves, president of the think tank The American Institute for Boys and Men, says he favors another approach.

RICHARD REEVES: I think that rather than thinking a football team is the answer, maybe more men in your nursing school is the answer.

ELDER-CONNORS: At the University of Vermont, officials found entrepreneur-themed programs appealed to prospective male students, so the university launched its first ever pitch challenge, where high school students could win a full ride.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PIERSON JONES: Hello, everybody. I am Pierson.

PARKER JONES: And I am Parker.

PIERSON JONES: And we would like to pitch to you the DiscGuard, an innovation in medicine.

ELDER-CONNORS: In early April, five teams competed at UVM for the final round of the contest. Their business pitches included mental health nonprofits, medical devices and sustainable phone chargers. The finalists were chosen from about 150 submissions from high school students around the world. Sixty percent came from men, and half were from students who identify as people of color. Jacobs, the UVM vice provost, says the idea's working.

JACOBS: We thought that this idea would attract men. We thought that this idea would attract racial and ethnically diverse students, and we were right.

ELDER-CONNORS: The contest put UVM on the map for finalists Parker and Pierson Jones, identical twins from Florida who traveled to Vermont for the competition. Pierson says he and his brother have been doing a lot of college-searching.

PIERSON JONES: We haven't looked at Vermont, the University of Vermont, but after this pitch, we're definitely going to look into it, because it's definitely more interesting now.

ELDER-CONNORS: But fixing the fewer-men problem is not just about getting more men to enroll. Evan Cuttitta, coordinator of Men & Masculinities programs at UVM, says male students are more likely to leave within their first year. He says UVM has launched some initiatives to address that, including a mentorship program for male students of color.

EVAN CUTTITTA: I am establishing some sense of belonging for current students, but that is also - we recognize that is already onstage, that is in the view of prospective students, as well.

ELDER-CONNORS: Cuttita says both recruiting and retention are linked, and UVM will need to do both to bring in more male students.

For NPR News, I'm Liam Elder-Connors, in Burlington, Vt.

INSKEEP: This piece was co-reported with the Hechinger Report. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Liam Elder-Connors
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