College graduates sit at a commencement ceremony.
(Chuck Savage/Getty Images)

The growing gender gap in higher education – both in enrollment and graduation rates – has been a topic of conversation and debate in recent months. Young women are more likely to be enrolled in college today than young men, and among those ages 25 and older, women are more likely than men to have a four-year college degree. The gap in college completion is even wider among younger adults ages 25 to 34.

A line graph showing that women in the U.S. are outpacing men in college graduation

Women’s educational gains have occurred alongside their growing labor force participation as well as structural changes in the economy. The implications of the growing gap in educational attainment for men are significant, as research has shown the strong correlation between college completion and lifetime earnings and wealth accumulation.

To explore the factors contributing to the growing gender gap in college completion, we surveyed 9,676 U.S. adults between Oct. 18-24, 2021. Everyone who took part is a member of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.

Data on rates of college completion came from a Center analysis of Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (IPUMS). The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the data collection for the 2020 ASEC. The response rate for the March 2020 survey was about 10 percentage points lower than in preceding months. Using administrative data, Census Bureau researchers have shown that nonresponding households were less similar to respondents than in earlier years. They also generated entropy balance weights to account for this nonrandom nonresponse. The 2020 ASEC figures presented used these supplementary weights.

Here are the questions used for this report, along with responses, and its methodology.

A majority (62%) of U.S. adults ages 25 and older don’t have a four-year college degree, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Current Population Survey data. But the reasons for not completing a four-year degree differ for men and women, according to a new Center survey of adults who do not have such a degree and are not currently enrolled in college.

A chart showing that about a third of men who haven’t completed four years of college say they ‘just didn’t want to’ get a degree

Financial considerations are a key reason why many don’t attend or complete college. Among adults who do not have a bachelor’s degree and are not currently enrolled in school, roughly four-in-ten (42%) say a major reason why they have not received a four-year college degree is that they couldn’t afford college. Some 36% say needing to work to help support their family was a major reason they didn’t get their degree.

Overall, about three-in-ten adults who didn’t complete four years of college (29%) say a major reason for this is that they just didn’t want to, 23% say they didn’t need more education for the job or career they wanted, and 20% say they just didn’t consider getting a four-year degree. Relatively few (13%) adults without a bachelor’s degree say a major reason they didn’t pursue this level of education was that they didn’t think they’d get into a four-year college.

Men are more likely than women to point to factors that have more to do with personal choice. Roughly a third (34%) of men without a bachelor’s degree say a major reason they didn’t complete college is that they just didn’t want to. Only one-in-four women say the same. Non-college-educated men are also more likely than their female counterparts to say a major reason they don’t have a four-year degree is that they didn’t need more education for the job or career they wanted (26% of men say this vs. 20% of women).

Women (44%) are more likely than men (39%) to say not being able to afford college is a major reason they don’t have a bachelor’s degree. Men and women are about equally likely to say needing to work to help support their family was a major impediment.

The shares of men and women saying they didn’t consider going to college or they didn’t think they’d get into a four-year school are not significantly different.

The reasons people give for not completing college also differ across racial and ethnic groups. Among those without a bachelor’s degree, Hispanic adults (52%) are more likely than those who are White (39%) or Black (41%) to say a major reason they didn’t graduate from a four-year college is that they couldn’t afford it. Hispanic and Black adults without a four-year degree are more likely than their White counterparts to say needing to work to support their family was a major reason. There aren’t enough Asian adults without a bachelor’s degree in the sample to analyze this group separately.

While a third of White adults without a four-year degree say not wanting to go to school was a major reason they didn’t complete a four-year degree, smaller shares of Black (22%) and Hispanic (23%) adults say the same. White adults are also more likely to say not needing more education for the job or career they wanted is a major reason why they don’t have a bachelor’s degree.

In some instances, the gender gaps in the reasons for not completing college are more pronounced among White adults than among Black or Hispanic adults. About four-in-ten White men who didn’t complete four years of college (39%) say a major reason for this is that they just didn’t want to. This compares with 27% of White women without a degree. Views on this don’t differ significantly by gender for Black or Hispanic adults.

Similarly, while three-in-ten White men without a college degree say a major reason they didn’t complete college is that they didn’t need more education for the job or career they wanted, only 24% of White women say the same. Among Black and Hispanic non-college graduates, roughly similar shares of men and women say this was a major reason.

Among college graduates, men and women have similar views on the value of their degree

Looking at those who have graduated from college, men and women are equally likely to see value in the experience. Overall, 49% of four-year college graduates say their college education was extremely useful in terms of helping them grow personally and intellectually. Roughly equal shares of men (47%) and women (50%) express this view.

Some 44% of college graduates – including 45% of men and 43% of women – say their college education was extremely useful to them in opening doors to job opportunities. A somewhat smaller share of bachelor’s degree holders (38%) say college was extremely useful in helping them develop specific skills and knowledge that could be used in the workplace (38% of men and 40% of women say this).

There are differences by age on each of these items, as younger college graduates are less likely than older ones to see value in their college education. For example, only a third of college graduates younger than 50, compared with 45% of those 50 and older, say their college experience was extremely useful in helping them develop skills and knowledge that could be used in the workplace.

Note: Here are the questions used for this report, along with responses, and its methodology.

Kim Parker  is director of social trends research at Pew Research Center.