At a coffee shop near Texas State University, a handful of male students occupied couches between classes, with one noticeable absence in the room — women.
But the university’s female students have long outnumbered their male peers, a divide that reflects a statewide trend that higher education officials say complicates their mission to increase the number of educated Texans who contribute to the state’s workforce.
Men are lagging women in college classrooms, according to statistics from the state’s higher education board that show men accounted for 62,211 degrees at public schools in 2016 compared with 82,700 for women. If that divide persists, education leaders say the state is unlikely to reach its objective of seeing 550,000 young adults earn a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2030.
“If we’re going to achieve our completion goal, we cannot do that with a significant part of our population not participating in higher education at some level,” said David Gardner, deputy commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Gardner’s boss, Commissioner Raymund Paredes, spoke about the gender gap at the University of Houston in mid-November. Updating the progress of goals the board introduced in 2015, Paredes said the gulf separating male college graduates from female ones is “not sustainable.” He said that because of this disparity, “males feel uncomfortable on some college campuses.”
At the University of Texas-Austin, men made up 48 percent of the undergraduate population last fall. At Texas State, it was 43 percent male and 57 percent female, a total that mirrors the state’s gender divide in college degrees.
“I’m around females a lot more,” said Texas State student body Vice President Jacqueline Merritt, who is on an all-female dance team. “But if you’re walking around campus, through the Quad, high traffic, it’s pretty equal. I’ve never noticed a difference in gender.”
Jacob Paul, a communications major, said he’s not alarmed by the disparity and asserted, “There’s too many people in college these days, anyway.”
A propensity for behavioral issues can prevent boys from keeping pace with girls at an early age, experts say. Likewise, desires to pick up a trade after high school or join the military can thin male enrollment numbers.
But perhaps the greatest reason for the disparity is as simple as this: Women now have career opportunities that were not afforded to their mothers and grandmothers.
“All of those things kind of converge, and you have a growing gender divide of young men deciding not to go to college relative to their female peers,” said Victor Saenz, who heads UT’s department of educational leadership and policy.
Experts say the gender divide is nothing new and that women have outnumbered men for decades on Texas’ public campuses. In fact, the board reports that every year since 2000 women have dominated college student populations, consistently making up between 56.1 percent and 57.4 percent.
However, there are a majority of men this year at Texas Tech (55 percent), Texas A&M University (52 percent) and the University of Houston (51 percent). At UT-San Antonio, there is an even split.
Minorities pose the biggest challenge to the state’s 2030 aim, which, if successful, would mean 60 percent of young adults have degrees. According to the board, African-Americans would need to double the number of graduates they represented in 2016, from 38,813 to 76,000. Hispanics, who make up half of the elementary school population in Texas, have an even greater climb, from 103,889 to 285,000.
Overall, men would need to earn 139,000 more degrees.
In many cases, family economics represent a hurdle to a college education, as 89 percent of poor eighth-graders do not earn a degree.