Female students have put themselves on the plus side of at least one gender gap in K-12 and higher education, new research shows. “In every U.S. state, young women are more likely than their male counterparts to have a bachelor’s degree,” write Richard V. Reeves, the economic studies director, and Ember Smith, a research analyst specializing in children and families, at Brookings, the nonprofit public policy organization.
But that gap doesn’t begin in college—female students are also more likely to graduate high school on time and they score substantially higher on standardized reading tests, the authors write in their research brief, “Boys Left Behind.” Girls perform nearly as well as boys on math assessments.
In 1970, 20% of men and just 12% of women ages 25 to 34 had a bachelor’s degree. By 2020, those numbers had risen—and flipped—to 41% for women and only 32% for men. That equates to 1.6 million more young women with a bachelor’s degree than men—a number that is just below the population of West Virginia, Reeves and Smith point out.
Today’s gender gaps, however, do not look the same in every state. For example, a higher percentage of men in Massachusetts (the state with the greatest levels of educational attainment) have a college degree compared to women in almost every other state. At the bottom of the scale, just 18% of young men in Mississippi had a college degree, a rate that is lower than the U.S. average for males was in 1970.
These states at the opposite ends of the spectrum reveal another gender gap. Young women in Mississippi are 50% more likely than men to hold a bachelor’s degree but that divide shrinks to just under 20% in Massachusetts, says the brief, which lists the gaps in every state and in the 25 largest metro areas.
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States are not required to report on-time high graduation based on gender, although they must report the data for major racial and ethnic groups, economically disadvantaged students, homeless students, and English learners. However, Reeves and Smith were able to identify trends using information from 33 states in which two-thirds of the nation’s high school students live. In 2021, 88% of female students graduated high school on time compared to about 82% of males.
“But even before high school, boys are falling behind,” the researchers write, citing gender gaps in how students in grades 4 through 8 perform in reading and math. Girls are ahead of boys in reading by more than 40% of a grade level in every state. In 10 states, girls outperform boys by more than a full grade level. In math, boys are only slightly ahead in some states, they conclude.
“Understanding the dynamics of the gender gaps in education, especially for less advantaged boys and men, is essential to informing policy solutions,” Reeves and Smith write. “The variation in disparities between different cities and states may well offer useful lessons.”
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