The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Where Are the Big Men on Campus?

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Keen observers of the college scene note that since the 1980s, young women have outnumbered young men as students as well as graduates, a pattern that shows no signs of changing. Some see the emergence of a knowledge-based economy as driving men from college campuses. Yet economists from the University of Chicago and the National University of Singapore may be the first to point to another driver of reduced educational outcomes among young men: the breakdown of the family, particularly the rise of unwed or divorced motherhood, which places sons at a significant disadvantage in academic pursuits from the earliest ages.

Marianne Bertrand and Jessica Pan examine data from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS) and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) to measure the role of non-cognitive skills in educational achievement. Conducting a wide range of regressions using both datasets, they find a statistically significant relationship between school suspension and the likelihood of graduating from high school, attending college, and earning a bachelor’s degree.

Building upon existing research establishing that “non-cognitive deficiencies” associated with school suspensions are significantly more common among boys than among girls, the two economists then set out to explore factors that explain why boys are particularly likely to engage in disruptive and acting-out behaviors such as aggression and delinquency. Their findings will not please diversity advocates who claim all families are equal: the researchers discover that home environment—not school environment—determines “the especially large gender gap” that emerges by middle school:

Family structure is an important correlate of boys’ behavior deficit. Boys that are raised outside of a traditional family (with two biological parents present) fare especially poorly. For example, the gender gap in externalizing problems when the children are in fifth grade is nearly twice as large for children raised by single mothers compared to children raised in traditional families. By eighth grade, the gender gap in school suspension is close to 25 percentage points among children raised by single mothers, while only 10 percentage points among children in intact families. Boys raised by teenage mothers also appear to be much more likely to act out.

Stressing the consistency of their findings, the researchers find no variations based upon factors such as age of entry into kindergarten, the quality of the school, teacher gender, or peers’ non-cognitive skills.

In seeking to explain these robust differences, Bertrand and Pan blame the emotional dynamics of broken homes, which they find wanting: “The most robust difference across family structures appears to be with respect to the emotional distance: single mothers appear especially distant from their sons.” Although the researchers find that married and unmarried mothers alike are closer to daughters than their sons, they report that the difference between the mother-son emotional gap and mother-daughter emotional gap is decidedly smaller in intact families than it is in broken families. This pattern may also explain why the researchers also found that boys are more likely than girls to be spanked in the past week in broken homes than are their peers from an intact home.

These findings go a long way toward connecting the dots between the rise of unwed childbearing and changing college-enrollment patterns, developments that have occurred almost simultaneously in America. Yet the researchers’ interest in the subject is more than academic, as they lament the real-world consequences: “Boys’ non-cognitive deficit might be a primary factor holding them back from completing the higher levels of education that are demanded in the skill-biased economies that now characterize most developed countries.”

(Marianne Bertrand and Jessica Pan, “The Trouble with Boys: Social Influences and the Gender Gap in Disruptive Behavior,”National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 17541, October 2011.)