As first-time college students settle in on campus this fall, males almost certainly will find themselves outnumbered.

Just 43 percent of U.S. college and university students were men in the fall of 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Fifty-seven percent were women.

That gender mix is nothing new. The last year male students outnumbered females on U.S. college campuses was 1978. Since then, the share of college students who are female has grown almost every year.

The consequences stretch beyond college campuses. Employment and labor force participation among young and middle-age men — ages 25 to 54 — reached all-time lows in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And women, who have a lower unemployment rate, have recovered more quickly from the recession.

In June, 54.6 million women were employed in the private sector, setting a new all-time high. Meanwhile, men in June were still 1.8 million jobs short of their pre-recession employment high as some of the fields they’ve traditionally dominated — and which don’t require postsecondary degrees — haven’t rebounded quickly.

The gender gap on college campuses doesn’t come from fewer men attending college: More than 9 million men were seeking postsecondary degrees in 2010, 54 percent more than in 1980. It’s that growth in the female student population has rapidly outpaced growth in colleges’ male populations.

The nearly 12 million women attending college in 2010 had grown their ranks more than 92 percent since 1980.

At the University of Maine System’s seven campuses, the student body was 40.3 percent male in the fall of 2012. That number had inched up slightly since 1998 when the university system’s population was 38.4 percent male.

“It’s a number that just doesn’t seem to change,” said Rosa Redonnett, executive director of student affairs for the University of Maine System.

It’s not only in enrollment that female students lead men. They’re also more likely to earn degrees.

Nationwide, 63.8 percent of female students who started college in the fall of 2004 graduated within six years, compared with 55.5 percent of male students. While men lagged women, both groups have improved their graduation rates over time. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show six-year graduation rates were 60.9 percent for women and 52 percent for men who started college in 1996.

Women claimed 62 percent of associate degrees in 2010, 57.2 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 60.3 percent of master’s degrees and 51.7 percent of doctoral degrees. Women have had an edge in associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree attainment for years, but they only overtook men at the doctoral level in 2006.

The path to college

The decision to enroll in college follows an academic career in which boys are less likely than girls to enjoy school, take an interest in academic work and work hard. Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and require special education; they’re more likely to be suspended and expelled; and they are more likely than girls to be held back a grade and drop out of high school.

“We make sure that we have programs in place that would attract male students,” said Redonnett. But, “I’ve always had the strong feeling that it happens before us. You can offer all the programs, [but] if they’re not inclined to go to college in the first place, it’s really hard to get past that.”

Students from low-income families and families in which no one else previously has attended college are certainly less likely than others to enroll in college. But the data show boys lag girls at every income level and in every ethnic group on a number of different measures that show academic engagement and indicate future academic success.

In 2009, 60.8 percent of parents thought their sons were interested in their schoolwork, according to a U.S. Census survey of parents. By comparison, 71.8 percent of parents thought their daughters were interested in their schoolwork.

The survey data also show an age divide. Some 65.7 percent of parents with younger boys — ages 6 to 11 — thought their sons were interested in schoolwork. However, the figure for parents with older sons — ages 12 to 17 — dropped to 55.9 percent. For girls, the age gap wasn’t as pronounced.

The data show the importance of the middle school years, which is when a number of boys start to disengage from academics and veer off the college path.

“Attendance in the middle school is a huge predictor of high school graduation and college-going,” said Karen Keim, associate director of the Maine Educational Opportunity Centers at the University of Maine. “If they get exposed to an early algebra experience, they’re also more likely to finish high school and go on to college.”

Men are even less likely to be among college students who enroll as adults after working for a few years, said Alan Parks, director of College Success Programs at the University of Maine.

Falling behind

Academic research points to dozens of reasons why boys lag girls in academic performance and, as a result, college-going rates and postsecondary success. The reasons range from the developmental to the cultural, according to a 2007 state report that summarized the potential reasons.

Boys’ cognitive abilities develop more slowly than girls’, so boys trail girls in reading ability early on. And early academic failure can lead to disengagement. Other research shows boys often lose interest in reading during middle school and have a special distaste at that age for reading assigned by their teachers.

Culturally, boys often associate academic success with the feminine. And when it comes to career choices, many fields males have traditionally chosen and seen other males in their family choose — construction, transportation, manufacturing — haven’t required postsecondary degrees unlike fields traditionally dominated by females such as education and health care.

Once they’re in college, men are more likely to drop out when they accumulate heavy debt loads, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal Gender and Society. When they drop out, men don’t immediately face the same earnings disadvantage that women face from not having a college degree. But over the course of their career, men greatly diminish their earnings potential and likelihood of being employed by not having a college degree.

Steering boys toward the college path

In 2003, Maine’s newly formed community college system partnered with a handful of high schools to identify juniors on track to graduate but with no plans for college. The Early College for ME program, which today serves 74 high schools, paired those students with community college counselors, who met with them regularly to discuss college and career planning.

“Most experts would tell you that’s still not early enough,” said Charles Collins, the program’s state director. “We’re sort of coming in at a point where it’s critical, and I think we have an effect. Clearly, if money were not an obstacle, I think we’d be diving deeper and trying to address this at earlier ages.”

Early College for ME participants take a community college course in their senior year of high school, and the program awards 250 community college scholarships per year.

In the program’s early years, Collins said, it served mostly boys. When it doubled in size about five years ago, more girls started to participate.

Last year, Hermon High School, United Technologies Center in Bangor and Eastern Maine Community College partnered for the pilot year of Bridge Year.

It’s not a program aimed specifically at boys, but it offers high school juniors the chance to participate in job shadows, receive college credit for academic courses and apply those academic skills at Bangor’s career and technical education center.

“It gives you a complete education,” said Fred Woodman, director of United Technologies Center. “It guarantees you a skill, you’ll get college credit, and then it’s your choice.”

Students in the program, which is expanding to Bangor High School this school year, will have enough college credits once they complete high school to earn an associate degree within a year.

“What we would like to see someday, sooner rather than later, is we start reaching down into eighth grade,” Woodman said.

Middle school outreach is already happening in Talent Search, a federally funded program in about 20 Maine schools that identifies low-income sixth-graders who would be first-generation college students and sets them up with college counselors.

“We change the question from, ‘Will I go to college?’ to ‘What college will I attend?’” said Keim of the Maine Educational Opportunity Centers. “We provide them with the roadmap to make sure that they can get into college.”

Matthew Stone is BDN opinion page editor.