Men are skipping college. Here's why that trend could have devastating consequences.

Our View: Figuring out why men aren't enrolling in college must be a national priority. Department of Education should study how to reverse this trend.

The Editorial Board

This fall, women outnumber men on two-year and four-year college campuses by millions. Nearly 60% of students are women while only about 40% are men, an education gap that has been widening for decades.

The problem has become even more acute as total enrollment has fallen by more than a million students over the past five years. The Wall Street Journal reports that "men accounted for 71% of the decline."

A half-century ago, the numbers were almost exactly the opposite, with men making up 60% of incoming freshmen. Back then, America knew why women were outnumbered: Sexist policies and social mores kept women on the sidelines.

Now, there's little research to explain why fewer men are enrolling in higher education. A spokesman for the Department of Education said the agency doesn't have an effort underway to explain what is going on.

Theories abound. One is that the problem starts in K-12, where boys are more likely to be held back, drop out and have trouble learning to read.

Another is that ubiquitous online porn, addictive video games and the lure of the immediate payoff of a job keep young men focused elsewhere.

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Higher rates of incarceration could explain why poor Black men don't go to college but don't explain why poor white men are even less likely to go.

Still another theory is that the problem doesn't have to do with men at all. Instead, it's attributed to the fact that women have no choice but to go to college to access opportunities men already have.

University graduation ceremony in 2014 in Newark, Del.

What is clear is that there will be consequences for millions of men opting out of college and for their families: 

►College graduates earn on average 56% more than high school grads, a difference that amounts to more than a million dollars over a working lifetime.

►College grads on average are healthier, happier, have better marriages and live longer, too.

►Economic downturns are less likely to turn into job loss.

Figuring out why men aren't enrolling in college should be a national priority, as should taking steps to achieve a healthier balance between men and women in higher education.

The Department of Education, under the Biden administration, needs to launch the search for answers, and Congress should ensure potential remedies that emerge are put into practice.

Women, of course, still need help in reaching equal opportunity in male-dominated fields such as science, technology, engineering and math, but equal opportunity is not a one-way street.  

America as a whole will be better off when each generation includes similar numbers of men and women who have graduated from college.