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Men saying “no thanks” to college

John Maxwell is curious about the world and freely shares, in casual conversation, tidbits of English history. Yet he says he’ll never again set foot in a college classroom.

“I consider myself mostly self-taught and I just believe I should cut my own path in life,” said the 24-year-old Maxwell, who dropped out of Littleton’s Araphoe Community College after one semester.

Maxwell said he didn’t want to waste his parents’ money on college work that held little or no interest to him.

“I just wanted to see what I wanted to do with my life and college was never a part of that,” said Maxwell, currently an employee at a Parker liquor store. “It might cost me financially down the road, but I never really saw myself as getting rich anyway. So I don’t see it as much of a loss.”

Maxwell is among a generation of young men who increasingly are turning their backs on colleges, universities and the associated degrees — either dropping out of upper-level learning or never considering it a viable option.

Some of the young men shunning campus say they don’t want to take on massive student-loan debt.

“If you don’t want to go to college you can go to a trade school and come away with something and not be on the hook for $150,000,” said 28-year-old Adam Stark, who dropped out of college and now is thriving in the music business in Denver.

Others say the campus environment has become testy, even hostile, toward men. “You definitely get the sense you are the problem,” said Maxwell. “One woman once told me that she could use statistics to determine how many of my friends were rapists.”

Whatever the reason, enrollment data show men are becoming less of a presence on college campuses both in Colorado and across the United States.

A higher percentage of Colorado’s female high school graduates than male graduates were enrolled in college from 2009 through 2015, according to state records. In 2015, 61.2 percent of Colorado’s recent female high school graduates attended college in the fall, compared to 51.8 percent of male graduates, according to the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

A similar trend is occurring nationally. Although more people than ever are attending college, the ratio of male to female students is nearly 1:2. Compare that to 1960,when there were 1.6 males for every female graduating from a U.S. four-year college and 1.55 males for every female undergraduate, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Today, women hold almost 60 percent of all bachelor degrees, and women now account for almost half of students in law, medical and business graduate programs.

Meanwhile, over the past decade about 30 percent of male college students have dropped out during their freshman year, according to education consultant and blogger Daniel Riseman. He is among those in higher education circles that calls the declining number of college males a “silent epidemic.”

“For two decades, I have helped hundreds of young men and women navigate college admissions,” Riseman said. “While none of my female students have dropped out, several male students return home without degrees and often with a sense of disappointment and despair.”

Kim Hunter Reed, new executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, says the issue of males eschewing college demands more study.

“This is very concerning to me,” Hunter Reed said. Young men — like all students, she emphasized — need support from a variety of groups to thrive in higher education.

“The most successful have a sense of place in college,” she said.

Stark, 28, studied computer science for a year and a half before leaving Metro State University to study on his own.

Now a software engineer for a music company in Denver, Stark also DJs at some of the area’s most notable nightclubs. “What I was getting in the classroom just didn’t jibe with me. I felt I could teach myself on the Internet,” he said.

He worked a fast-food job and then took a corporate gig to support himself while he studied on his own. The alternative, he said, was to work four years to get a bachelor’s degree and then another year or two to earn a master’s degree, then “go to work for some huge company and go home at night and live my life with my family. And that just didn’t sound appealing to me at the time.”

He thinks women his age are facing the same pressures that men did in the 1950s and 1960s to stay in school, get a degree and get a good job to set them up for life.

“Maybe there is more pressure on women now to go the traditional route and contribute to society,” he said.

Stark is quick to warn that his route was not the easiest. He got kicked out of his family home, and worked hard to get interviews, study and keep himself afloat before he acquired enough skills to land a decent paycheck. “What I did was not for everybody,” he said.

Observers say many young men delude themselves into thinking they are one idea away from being the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. They think they can make a fortune without a college degree, said Riseman. “As a result, they enter college with little sense of purpose and end up failing out,” he said. “While these dropouts imagine they can succeed without a degree, successful start-ups are rare.”

While young men without degrees, in general, land higher-paying jobs than their female peers, many of the top-paying jobs are in high-risk industries like oil and gas or manufacturing. “What happens to that high school graduate or dropout 10, 20, 30 years later?” said James Shelley, director of the Men’s Resource Center at Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, Ohio.

Lakeland Community College boasts one of the country’s few men’s centers. Shelley says he has focused his work on the widening gender gap on U.S. campuses because the issue has received little attention.

He believes the “cleansing of boy behavior” in elementary and secondary schools and boys’ more independent learning style all discourage traditional college classroom work. Date rape prevention programs, although well-intentioned, also scare men away from campuses, Shelley said. The programs “welcome young men to college by essentially telling them that they are potential rapists,” Shelley said.

But, he said, many men are not doing enough to help themselves. “When I walk the hallways of my college, the young men generally look less mature than the women. With their baseball caps and baggy pants, they look like overgrown 12-year-old boys, not 18- to 24-year-old men,” Shelley said.

Amy Wilkins, a University of Colorado associate professor of sociology, does not buy the idea that men are being picked on in college.

Women have to work harder in classrooms to get degrees and jobs where they will be paid less than their male counterparts, she said. “College is still so much of a man’s game, it’s so much easier for them,” said Wilkins. “If you are a smart woman you learn very quickly you are not supposed to act smart in college.”

To say that men have it tougher these days on campus, she said, is “ludicrous.”

But Wilkins, who has a 17-year-old son, is sympathetic to the fears many young men face in an ever-changing world.

“I think friends of my son’s age are more afraid of economic instability that they let on,” she said. “They talk a big game about going out and doing things on their own, but I don’t think they believe it deep down inside.”

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