Expert Commentary

Men’s and women’s pathways through four-year colleges: Disruption and sex stratification

2010 study from the University of Washington published in the American Educational Research Journal on nontraditional college participation and gender.


According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 17.6 million students attended U.S. postsecondary institutions in 2009. Of these, more than a third chose to study part-time or discontinuously. While such nontraditional attendance can make education possible that otherwise wouldn’t be, research has suggested that it is also associated with lower graduation rates, higher education expenses and a reduction in total wages over the course of one’s working life.

A 2010 study from the University of Washington published in the American Educational Research Journal, “Male and Female Pathways through Four-Year Colleges: Disruption and Sex Stratification in Higher Education,” analyzes National Education Longitudinal Study data on 4,640 young adults who attended a four-year college between 1992 and 1996. The researcher tracked academic performance, financial aid support, prior high school experiences and life choices to determine why students choose nontraditional education pathways.

The study’s findings include:

  • “[Only] 8.7% of men and 6.7% of women reported that they took time off at some point but never went part-time. A part-time pathway is more common than a discontinuous one, and almost 15% of men and 13% of women reportedly attended part-time at some point during college but never took time off.”
  • “Early family formation is associated with increased likelihoods of following discontinuous and multiple disrupted pathways but not part-time pathways, and so it appears that students are more likely to temporarily forgo educational pursuits rather than balance the demands of school and family.”
  • Undergraduate men typically earned lower GPAs and manifest more behavioral problems in high school than their female counterparts. “Men are more likely than women to follow disruptive college pathways because their lower high school academic performance leaves them less prepared for college.”
  • The higher academic performance of women at the outset of college suggests that they enter better prepared for college’s academic rigors and are less likely to delay their education or drop out of school. “First-year college GPA (measured continuously), explains about 23% of the gap [between men and women], showing that college academic performance overall and not just low scholarship affects sex differences.”
  • Hispanic students (22.5% of males, 21% of females) are the most likely to experience both part-time and sporadic school attendance; white females (11%) and Asian males (approximately 8%) were the least likely.

The study cautions against viewing disrupted college pathways as negative, as part-time attendance allows more students to enroll in college who otherwise may not have enrolled at all: “The rise in disrupted pathways may have increased access to higher education for nontraditional students such as single parents, first-generation students, and financially independent students.”

Tags: higher education, women and work, youth