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An educated populace is the cornerstone of a successful, affluent culture and a necessity if the United States wants to remain competitive. Our education system is the framework that enables and prepares America’s youths to support, lead, and drive America’s future. Education, more than any other factor, is responsible for America’s success. It is for that reason that the current shift in enrollment and completion rates among males in higher education may be seen as a crisis. It is immensely disturbing and potentially disastrous.
While there are a lot of theories as to the cause, no one has been able to accurately explain why young male Millennials are abandoning the education system and especially, higher ed. The lion’s share of the discourse on the subject has focused on the increased presence of females in higher education, the shifting nature of male’s roles in society, and other similar concepts. While these may be factors, I believe they overlook the true cause and scope of the issue.
The infusion of brilliant young female minds into higher education is a wonderful thing and there is without question some validity to the observations made that womens’ aptitudes are better suited to the standard classroom format. That said, I don’t believe the introduction of women to higher education is what’s causing men to drop out. Rather, we are seeing a surge in the individual student’s ability to learn and comprehend in a more complex reality. The issue stems from the way members of the Millennial generation are developing and their use of complex, multi-tasking skill sets that have been honed in the daily practice of video gaming, internet access, chatting, and involvement in online social networks. Simply put, tech savvy Millennials are not being engaged or challenged by the one-dimensional delivery systems in a majority of today’s classrooms. They are not interested in sitting passively and having information spoon fed to them. Much of this information is not interdisciplinary or connected to the real world. They can do better on their own in this new, comprehensive ‘digital classroom’. If we don’t reevaluate the way we educate Millennials, I expect female enrollment numbers to peak and begin to decline as they become more engaged in technology which follows the trend we are currently seeing among males.
The growth of the internet between 1995 and 2007 has been staggering as evidenced by these NSF diagrams. The Millennials are a transitional generation. The oldest Millennials are digital immigrants, while the youngest are digital natives (as coined by Marc Prensky here). Those of us caught in the middle vary widely. At 23, I find myself in the middle of the pack and surrounded by friends who fall near both extremes. For my part, I consider myself as close to being a digital native as is possible. At the same time, I have friends my age who have only recently started using the web and engaging in its immersing nature.
The difference between digital natives and digital immigrants is – I believe – what is responsible for the decline of males in higher education. Historically males have been the early tech adopters. You’ve probably heard a joke or two about the improbability of finding a female gamer and you’ll no doubt agree that when you hear the word “geek” the last image that jumps to mind is of a woman. While these depictions are cultural stereotypes, they have historically been fairly accurate. For the last 20 years computers, the Internet, and video games have largely been the domain of men. While that has begun to shift in the last 3-5 years – especially in the gaming industry – fully engaged female digital natives are still relatively rare.
To that end, males have been heavily exposed to – and had their social behavior patterns effected by – technology to a far greater degree than females. The behavioral shift I’m talking about is fundamental. It’s the way these individuals relate to each other and the environment around them. Where historically most of our interactions were relatively one sided – the news, TV, the classroom, etc. – the modern male has grown up in a highly interactive, immersive environment. Video games are the most extreme case where this is evident, but the principle applies to the web as well. To use myself as an example:
I started gaming in 1st grade. By 1998 I abandoned single-player games and began gaming exclusively online. By 2007 I abandoned my TV subscription, opting instead for the web and streaming video. Why? Because TV wasn’t engaging enough. It was boring one-way communication. From YouTube, to Blogs, to Facebook and Reddit, Web 2.0 is how I interact and relate to the world. I am able to accelerate and pursue my own interactive, interdisciplinary learning style. I run dual 22″ wide screen monitors. While writing this blog post I have the blog up on one screen, Facebook (w/ Facebook chat), Twitter, Gmail (w/ Gmail chat), iGoogle, and Reddit up as tabs, and at the same time I may have a movie playing which I periodically pause to focus on a thought, or to pull up research for the post I’m writing…all the while, when I find something I want to explore in greater depth, I go for it. To someone used to one-way communication this may seem chaotic. For most, it would seem to be information overload. For a digital native accustomed to these interactive resources, it’s not only the norm, it’s conducive to a productive and enjoyable experience. I can process information on multiple levels through a diverse range of delivery systems.
Millennials, particularly the digital natives, are able to complete many tasks and extend their understanding of issues well beyond the confines of the typical classroom setting. Interestingly enough, these skills – this hands-on approach – is what has allowed me to stay competitive at the leading edge of the business world. It’s all based on interactivity. While the news and researchers have historically avoided the subject in favor of running pieces on violence inducing video games and brain rot several recent pieces like this one confirm the positive effects and impact of video games. From a recent MSNBC article available here, “One study of 33 laparoscopic surgeons found that those who played video games were 27 percent faster at advanced surgical procedures and made 37 percent fewer errors than those who didn’t”.
To those who are not familiar with these new applications of technology it would be easy to label multi-tasking digital natives as ADD/ADHD or some other label, suggesting that those who can’t sit as passive-adaptive students in a classroom suffer from an illness. Look at the skyrocketing numbers of ADD/ADHD diagnoses over the last 20 years. It’s not a virus, it’s not a sickness. It is often young males who want to explore the world around them, who need to be engaged on multiple levels, and who want to contribute as much as they receive. It’s a generation of males who are developing the behavioral framework that will allow them to not only exist, but to excel in the modern digital era. These are the skills that will be required in the future to keep America strong. Research has shown that video games can be used to “treat” ADD/ADHD (example: Online Video Game Therapy For Mental Health Concerns: A Review by Wilkinson, Ang & Goh). Video games may be a key to understand ADD/ADHD. The skill sets utilized in video gaming are the epitome of the new interactive paradigm which the education system needs to both recognize and embrace.
The young males dropping out of and failing to pursue higher education aren’t stupid. It’s not that they can’t compete with women. It’s that they are disengaged because the current delivery system is not interactive and is quickly becoming significantly less relevant. The modern male is hardwired for fast-paced, multi-level exchanges. They are being forced into an education system which still operates on a passive one-way model. You go to class, you sit down at a desk in a sterile room, and you listen to someone lecture for somewhere between 60 and 180 minutes. Oftentimes the lecture is little more than a professor reading PowerPoint slides on the screen. If you’re lucky you might be in a small class and be able to ask a question or participate in group discussion for part of the class. All the while you pray you don’t get called on, because you spent the night before exploring Wikipedia and reading about the Amazon, international business trends, and the history of the windshield wiper instead of reading a dry text and memorizing theory. Too often the material in the schools is every bit as dead and lifeless as the system delivering it. Unless he has the family support or long term drive to satisfy the college degree for a quick check-mark on job applications, he’s not going to stick around any longer than he has to.
The CEOs and Founders of most of today’s major tech start ups are prime examples of this phenomenon. Ask yourself how many high tech start ups have historically been founded by women? Of those founded by males, how many of the founders are college or high school dropouts? How many have masters degrees? How many have their doctorate? These “drop outs” are the individuals at the leading edge, driving international business forward, and the system did not provide what they needed. They had to leave school to learn and succeed.
The truly scary part is that this is just the beginning. The crisis in education we’re seeing today will only get worse over the next several years as the true digital natives begin to come of age. Make no mistake, it won’t be limited to males alone. Now that the gaming industry and the rest of the classic “geek” strongholds have become female-friendly, expect to see similar shifts among women.
The problem isn’t the technology. It’s not video games or too much time on the web. Ironically enough, these are all behaviors we should be embracing and encouraging. The problem is that our education system has not adapted to serve the population’s needs in the digital age. Fundamentally – it’s failing to educate young males and as a result they are seeking more relevant material and finding delivery systems elsewhere. It won’t be an easy transition and I don’t have the answers for an easy fix. I do know that until we recognize the importance of the digital native skill set, the attrition will continue.
On a side note, I’ve spent over a week contacting the US Census Dept., Dept. of Education, and various other sources trying to get core enrollment and completion numbers for males since 1990. Unfortunately, despite the straight forward and seemingly basic nature of my request, I have not been able to attain usable data. Most of the data publicly available has been collected in research projects exploring enrollment from particular points-of-view. It is not useful. I’d appreciate your help tracking down valid data and exploring it.
*EDIT* – Please note that I am in the process of & will be responding to all comments. If you’ve posted a comment, please look for my response in comment form. If I haven’t gotten to yours yet, I will as soon as possible. Thanks for your feedback and participation!
*EDIT* – As of the morning of 8/20 I’ve received a response to the request I had made for completion rates from IPEDS(The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) I made last week. I’m currently in the process of converting the core enrollment data to a percentage in order to get concrete data. Once completed I’ll post an update with what it shows.
A large amount of traffic over night from Reddit. Thank you all for your comments and feedback. I value your feedback and will be responding as soon as possible.
Thoughts, feedback, questions, experiences? Please share.
On a final note I’d like to thank Ed and Jo Berger for their thoughts, feedback and serving as a sounding board as I explored and developed the ideas behind this post. Their rich experience and perspective as educators has been immensely valuable.
PART II w/ Data is now available HERE.