The NYT tells us that economists are struggling with cultural explanations for the fact that men's college enrollment rates have been lagging so far behind those of women. The issue is that we have seen a sharp increase in the gap between the wages of college and high school graduates over the last three decades. What economics tells us it that this rising return to a college education should cause more people to go to college.
This is exactly what has happened with women as their rate of college enrollment and completion has increased rapidly over this period. However that has not been the case with men, who now have much lower enrollment and completion rates.
That would seem to pose somewhat of a mystery. Why do women respond to price signals but not men? M.I.T. economist David Autor seeks to find the answer in cultural differences. While there may be some truth to his explanations, there is a more simple and obvious explanation.
My colleague John Schmitt and former colleague Heather Boushey looked at this issue a couple of years ago. They noted that there was a far larger dispersion in the wages of men with college degrees than was the case with women. In fact, there was a substantial overlap between the distribution of wages of men without college degrees and men with college degrees.
This means that while on average men will have higher earnings with a college degree than without one, for a substantial portion of men this is not true. Presumably the marginal college student (the one who is deliberating over going to college versus starting their career) is more likely to be in this group of losers among college grads than the typical college student who never contemplated not attending college.
Since there is a much greater risk for men than women (who don't have the same dispersion of wages among college grads) of ending up as losers by going to college, it should not be surprising that fewer men than women would opt to go to college. So the story is really simple, you just need a bit of economics and statistics to get there.