California State University, Long Beach
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Professor Studies Gender Disparity in Higher Education

Published: December 15, 2009

Once upon a time, it was expected that most middle-class young men would go on to college after high school and land high-paying, white-collar jobs. Women were presumed to be headed for a life of homemaking or low-paid administrative or service labor. But times have changed and the old stereotypes are far from present-day realities, said Jonathan O’Brien, a lecturer in Advanced Studies in Education and Counseling at CSULB since 2008. O’Brien became a full-time lecturer in August. He teaches in and co-coordinated the Counseling Department’s option in Student Development and Higher Education and teaches in the Ed.D. in Education Leadership program.

U.S. Department of Education statistics show that men, whatever their race or socioeconomic group, are less likely than women to earn bachelor’s degrees and among those who do, fewer complete their degrees in four or five years. This trend, combined with the relative stagnation in the rates of enrollment for men, has led to a steadily increasing gender imbalance at colleges across the nation. In 2004, 9.9 million women were attending the nation’s accredited postsecondary schools compared to only 7.4 million men. While this development seems to be of little consequence to outsiders, the issue is a point of concern to higher education administrators. Research has demonstrated that a conspicuous gender imbalance can adversely affect college enrollments, retention and scholarship opportunities.

The gender disparity is of special interest to O’Brien, who seeks to understand men’s interest in and engagement with higher education. As part of his doctoral research, he interviewed men ages 24-58 years old who were currently attending college but did not choose to attend college at the traditional age of 18-22 years old. O’Brien wanted to know from the men themselves, what was it about their motivations, backgrounds, and the nature of compulsory education that did not set them up to pursue college at the time in life when it is most common?

“The check-out age is usually around middle school,” said O’Brien, an alumni of Long Beach schools, including DeMille Middle School and Millikan High School. “That is when most young men decide they want to be athletes or rap stars. The interesting thing is that we find young women increasingly want to be doctors, lawyers and astronauts.”

O’Brien is a scholar/practitioner of “masculinities studies,” a relatively recent field of social research that emerged from feminist and gender studies. The interdisciplinary academic field is devoted to topics concerning men, masculinity, gender and politics. Masculinities studies explore issues surrounding changing forms of male privilege and the ways in which some men, particularly in developed countries, deal with their loss of privilege.

“The use of the plural, ‘masculinities’ is intentional,” said O’Brien. “We don’t want to present a uniform sense of what it is to be a man. We talk about ‘masculinities.’ This is the idea that there are a variety of ways to express or to perform what it is to be a man. Ask a man what it means to be a man. Most men have a hard time answering that.”

O’Brien tries to understand why men are checking out of the educational process. “I want to be really clear,” he said. “It’s not that men are in a ‘crisis’ because I don’t believe there is one in the traditional sense of this word. However, for concerned parents, teachers and counselors, the salient issue is that, compared with the historical trends of men in higher education, there has been a marked decline in men’s participation in college, many of whom take longer to get their degrees, if they even finish. Young men today don’t seem to be pursuing college in the numbers that women do.”

Photo by Victoria Sanchez
Jonathan O’Brien

Men are experiencing a significant shift in how they view themselves and their roles in society. O’Brien noted that, “In my research I interviewed a diverse group of working- and middle-class men who were in career transitions, unemployed or making less money than their spouses. Despite the economic disparity, the men still considered themselves to be the family breadwinners. To feel good about themselves, they constructed their own version of reality in which they say to themselves, ‘I’m the breadwinner in this family. Her money is what we use for fun.’”

O’Brien stresses that higher education is critical in helping men to build a new identity in the face of shifting social expectations and economic uncertainty. The difficulty lies in getting them to understand the benefits of a degree and to enroll in college. The findings of his study suggest that parents and teachers can intervene and support boys who are under-performing in school if they can connect what boys are learning in the classroom with the idea that their lives have a larger purpose and education will help them achieve their goals.

“The men in my study responded well in school when they felt that the learning environment offered examples of honorable men and the teachers were fair to them and supportive of their learning styles and challenges,” O’Brien said. “They also performed at their best with discipline and structure that focused their mental and physical resources in constructive ways while challenging them to achieve big dreams.”

O’Brien is a CSULB success story. His grandmother, Ersielene Harger, who passed away in 2008 at 97, worked in CSULB’s food services. “She always held this university in high esteem and hoped I would be a student here someday,” he said. O’Brien received both his B.A. in English from CSULB in 1991, his Master of Science degree in College Student Personnel Administration came from Central Missouri State University in 1993, and his Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from UCI and CSULB in 2008 as part of the Joint Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership. He brings to campus nearly 20 years of experience in higher education administration at public and private universities in Missouri, Kentucky and California. Before joining CSULB, he was Associate Dean of Students at Occidental College.

O’Brien hopes his research doesn’t evoke a “zero-sum game” where the gains of girls and women have to be rolled back for boys to get ahead. “This is not about boys vs. girls,” he states. “This is about recognizing how people learn and providing a quality education for everyone in ways that they will become engaged and love to learn for a lifetime.”