Failure to Launch and Young Men: The Educational Dilemma

Young men are experiencing quarter-life crises at an alarming rate. Men are struggling to graduate college, step into the workforce, step into independent adulthood, and deal with adversity and setbacks in life. But what is behind this epidemic of failure to launch guys? Psych Bytes presents a multi-part series exploring the changing landscape of the teenage and young adult years and the impact it is having on young men. First up – young men and the educational dilemma.

Right before I started high school, my mother took me aside and reminded me she could not afford to help pay for college. My two older sisters had already gone off to college and neither received any financial support from my mom, so this was not news to me. I was reminded that if I was to go to college, it would rest completely on my own merits and achievements.

I am a college guy with the fear of failure to launchOne of the reasons my mom pulled me aside was I did not try in middle school. No, it’s not that I could have tried harder – I did not give any effort in middle school. I simply showed up. I engaged in class (mostly because I’m a talker and attention seeker). But once I left school, I gave school work zero attention.

This had to frustrate my mom since she was also a teacher. I swear to this day that I passed middle school math because my mom pulled strings with other teachers. Obviously, I pulled it together and did go to college on my own accomplishments. But heading into my freshman year of high school, nothing seemed guaranteed.

How Do I Know If My Son Will Succeed or Struggle in College?

That’s a question I get from both parents and many of the young guys I help in therapy. Is college going to be an experience marked by growth and accomplishment or struggle and setbacks? So when I am asked, “will my son succeed or fail in college?” I often answer the question by posing a question. I ask, “What’s the greatest predictor of future behaviors?” When folks inevitably reply “past behaviors,” I follow up with, “and how do you feel about their behaviors and decision-making skills?” That’s when things can get a little uncomfortable.

Why Are Young Guys Struggling at College?

After peaking in 2010, college enrollment has been gradually declining for the past five years, and according to Anthony Carnevale, who directs Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “When enrollments go down, the first thing you lose are the boys.” No wonder women account for a majority of today’s college-degree-holders. These figures have been steadily climbing for women for decades. The trend began with associate’s degrees in 1977, and by 1986 more women were earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men. Women began attaining more doctorate degrees than men in 2006.

why are young guys struggling in college and with failure to launchAll of this begs the question, are women succeeding more, or are more men struggling? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Going to College ≠ Graduating College

Jeffrey Selingo is a professor of practice at Arizona State University and a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities. Among the research he gathered for his recent book There Is Life After College, Selingo found:

  • Four decades ago, fewer than half of high-school graduates in the U.S. went on to college the following fall. Today, nearly 66 percent do.
  • There are nearly 45 million Americans over the age of 24 who have some college and no degree. Of those, the largest slice is in their 20s.
  • By age 29, fewer than one-third of Americans have earned a bachelor’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly 40 percent have started college but never finished by the time they turn 30.

young african american male graduating from college not failure to launchMore folks are going to college, but we’re not seeing the same trend line for graduating college. Only 46 percent of Americans complete college once they start, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Twenty-nine percent of those who seek an associate’s degree obtain it within three years. And only 56 percent of students who embark on a bachelor’s degree program finish within six years, according to a 2011 Harvard study titled Pathways to Prosperity. America has the lowest college completion rate in the developed world, at least among the 18 countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Add to those figures the statistics of transfer rates. One-third of college students will transfer schools at least once, and half of those folks with transfer to more than one different school. All the data points to many college-aged students ill-prepared for college and lacking clarity as to why they’re going to college in the first place.

Getting into College ≠ Prepared for College

Among the dropouts, many are men. Women are much more likely to start college and finish. Nearly 50 percent of women have a bachelor’s degree by age 29, compared with about 40 percent of men. Over the past decade, 30 percent of male college students have dropped out during their freshman year, according to education consultant and blogger Daniel Riseman. He is among those in higher education circles that call the declining number of college males a “silent epidemic.”

Biology also factors into college readiness for males. ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning disabilities are more frequent in boys. Two-thirds of students with learning disabilities are male. By 12th grade, male reading test scores are far below female test scores.  Psychologist Michael Thompson has concluded that 11th-grade boys are now writing at the same level as 8th-grade girls. Thompson is the co-author of “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.” Boys account for nearly three-quarters of the D’s and F’s awarded in school. Fewer men are graduating college because fewer men are applying to college. Males make up 44 percent of all college applicants. And fewer men are applying to college because fewer men are graduating high school. Men are more likely to drop out of high school than women in nearly all states. Male students are also less likely to take AP courses and exams, which have long been used to earn college credit hours before enrolling in college.

young college male afraid of future and failure to launchFor those with learning issues, it is imperative to have the skills needed for self-advocacy and resourcefulness. Unfortunately, for many young guys heading off to college, this is often not the case. Many guys with learning problems do not seek out the services available to them or necessary for them to successfully adjust to college academics.

How You Earn the Grade is Just as Important as the Grade Itself

It can be a humbling experience when I tell young guys and their parents that the grades they received in high school are grossly inflated. There are two key areas I look at when I assess how smooth or rough the academic transition will be; how they earned their grades, and how much autonomy contributed to their grade.

Not all grades are created equal: In lower education, class participation, projects, and extra credit often helps students to compensate for low test grades, poor study habits, or late work. This is rarely the case in college where the grades are primarily determined by a few quizzes, exams, and a final.

Who’s driving the bus?: Growing up, there were only two times during a school semester that I knew what my grades were – when I received my midterm report card and final report card. Not knowing my exact grade pushed me to continue to perform at the highest level. Nowadays, kids, parents, and teacher know overall grade performance in real time. Parents know when their kids have turned in assignments. They know if their children turned in late work or have missing work. And often, this results in parents and teachers directing and reminding (or nagging) kids to stay on top of their school assignments. What happens when these same guys head off to college and there is no parent or teacher continuously reminding them to work, study, prepare, and turn in materials?

teacher helping young male student with test and questions on failure to launchStruggles Occur Long Before College, and It’s Not Just Education

Although society would be well served to continue to study the changing landscape of lower education, it is not schooling alone that is responsible for the surge of struggling 18-25-year-old men.

Perhaps young guys have different attitudes toward college than young women. Perhaps young men are the biggest casualty to the narcissism and entitlement that has plagued this generation of young folks; expecting great things in life without demonstrating the commitment and responsibility it requires. Stay tuned as we continue to explore the reasons behind this cultural concern around young men and ways we can help turn the tide to successfully launch young men into adulthood.


Click here to read Failure to Launch and Young Men: The Mental Health Crisis


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