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USF finds gender gap in graduation

At USF and other universities across the nation, women are graduating at a higher rate than men.  

Vice Provost for Student Success Paul Dosal said he saw this problem two or three years ago and since then it has only grown.

USF’s graduation rate in 2013 was 35.6 percent in four years and 63.2 percent in six years. Of this, 27.5 percent of men graduated in four years and 57.9 percent graduated in six years.

Women graduated at 41.4 percent in four years and 67.1 percent in six years. In 2015, the graduation rate at USF for graduating on time was 63 percent of men and 72 percent for women. 

According to College Completion, Florida’s graduation rate was 38.7 percent in four years and 64.4 percent in six years for all counted graduates in 2013.

Isolated by gender, the graduation rate for men in Florida was 30.6 percent in four years and 59.6 percent in six years, while women graduated at 45.1 percent in four years and 68.1 percent in six years.

Dosal believes, along with USF’s administration, that this  gap is a problem because of its effect on USF’s overall graduation rate, as well as those male students who aren’t performing at the same rates as their female peers.

“It was certainly a big enough gap to be of concern to our President and our Provost, because while we have seen growth in the graduation rates of men and women, the undergraduate males have not been able to gain much ground at all,” Dosal said. 

“In pursuit of our strategic objectives, we want to continue to raise our graduation rate, so for the last cohort of students for which data is available -— the 2009 cohort – our graduation rate hit 69 percent, roughly. So we’re thrilled about that.”

There is a lot of pressure to meet these state benchmarks, Dosal said, from the state and from within the university. The incentive is partially associated with the monetary rewards for meeting them, but also is about the university’s desire to do better. 

“I think we would have been doing it with or without that performance money,” Dosal said.

The increase in women receiving bachelor’s degrees and graduating from college at greater rates is a national trend which has been in action for years. Women officially began to outnumber men as bachelor’s degrees recipients in 2015, according to the US Census Bureau.

In the 2014-15 academic year, USF awarded 5,676 to women and 3,814 bachelor’s degrees to men. So far, for the 2015-16 academic year, women have received 1,084 bachelor’s degrees at USF, compared to 711 bachelor’s degrees for men.

According to the USF, in the 2015-16 academic year, women make up 55.7 percent of the undergraduate population in the USF system. 

Dosal thinks women outnumbering men at USF doesn’t have much of an impact on the gap. It does, however, reflect the trend in society that women are pursuing degrees more than men. 

“It’s such a big and complex problem that we’re still trying to figure it out, honestly,” Dosal said. “We only have some good ideas about why it’s occurring.”

Preliminary analysis, he said, has shown that men are less likely than women to seek assistance, including counseling, tutoring and advising. 

However, programs like peer mentoring in engineering, which allows beginner students  to talk to and receive help from more senior members of the engineering program, have seen results in creating a group atmosphere for students, according to Dosal.

“… It’s making that kind of group study sessions and interaction more a part of the norm,” Dosal said.

A second factor he suggested is the enrollment patterns of men and women. Dosal mentioned that some degree programs, such as engineering and nursing, have recognizable gender gaps.

He would more strongly attribute the gap to the students of both genders going into the wrong fields, possibly because they believe it is the proper degree for a man or woman. 

Of the College of Nursing’s 1,504 undergraduate students this semester, 1,282 are women and 222 are men. Comparatively, this semester saw 3,602 undergraduate male students and 845 female students, making for a total of 4,449.

Dosal said one of the ways USF hopes to combat this gap is by steering students into degrees which best suit them earlier on in their academic careers.

“I think part of the challenge might be to help those students find a degree program that’s more appropriate for their interests and passion and training,” Dosal said. “To sum it up, I worry that too many men are pursuing stereotypically male programs and careers. I also suspect that too many women are pursuing stereotypically female programs and careers.”

Dosal and the USF administration are looking to be careful in addressing this issue, stressing the importance of not halting the upward trends of women. The goal is to have graduation rates for both genders continue to climb.

“We want to keep men and women on an upward trajectory but in the process see what we can do to strengthen the academic performance of males,” Dosal said. “You don’t want to close the gap by slowing down the progress made by women.”

Dosal thinks the enrollment patterns will be slow to change due to a deeper cultural influence. The gender gap in graduation rates also shows consistency across ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds, which Dosal thinks will be both a help and a hindrance to coming up with a solution.

“It suggests to me that the solution lies in providing greater support for a large number of our students rather than a small cohort of students,” Dosal said. “It means then that rather than trying to develop a program to support a particular group of students … we’re taking a broader approach. I’m not sure, in other ways it might be more difficult to do that.”

Currently, USF in partnership with the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education is putting together a task force to look into the matter. The task force will collect data over the next three months which will be looked at during a retreat in April where USF will begin to develop its plan. The group will be made up of administrators, faculty and students. USF plans to begin recruitment for students into this group within the next couple of weeks.

Dosal said the university hopes to have a plan in place by fall of 2016, with results hopefully following soon after.

“This is not an issue that only affects men,” Dosal said. “I think (that) if the trends continue it becomes a problem for our entire society. I don’t think we can just sit back and ignore it and hope it’s (going to) get better. I believe firmly in the need to increase the number of our adults with a higher education degree or certificate … As a country I don’t think we’re ever going to get there (to the national goal) unless and until we improve the academic performance of men at the university level.”