Seth Carter, President of Colby Community College in Colby, Kansas. (Image provided)

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

A few months back, I read this article from the Wall Street Journal about the declining share of college attendees who are men. The key quote is this: “At the close of the 2020-21 academic year, women made up 59.5% of college students, an all-time high, and men 40.5%.” Equally shocking were the quotes from college administrators admitting that there’s an implicit advantage for male college applicants. At Baylor, for instance, the admission rate for boys was effectively seven percent higher than for girls last year. According to admissions officials from UCLA, it’s not that male applicants are less qualified when they apply, it’s that they’re far less likely to send an application in the first place.

That article made me wonder if there was a geographic component to the trend and it turns out that, like most phenomena in American life, there is. According to a report from the Association of Community College Trustees, “in 2015, 25% of men aged 25 or older living in rural areas had earned an associate degree or higher; compared to 30% of rural women, 39% of urban men, and 42% of urban women.” The gap between rural men and women grew from one to five percent between 2000 and 2015.

It’s a hard problem to solve in part because men still enjoy so many gendered economic advantages, but it’s not hard to imagine the ways in which long-term educational attainment disparities could impact folks of all genders.

Seth Carter is President of Colby Community College (CCC) in Colby, Kansas. I wanted to speak with him about his perspective on the issue as an administrator of a college where less than 30% of the enrolled population is male. Enjoy our conversation about getting men into nursing programs, getting women into renewable energy technician programs, and striving to make education available to rural communities overall.

First of all, can you tell me a bit about yourself and your institution? Where is Colby Community College? What’s its mission? Who attends?

Thank you for having me. Yes, ma’am, my name is Seth Carter, President at Colby Community College (CCC). I have been at CCC for almost seven years. We’re an institution known for stellar academics, as evidenced by the fact that we consistently rank in the top tier of graduation rates in the state and the nation for the community college sector.

CCC has a plethora of academic options. With more than 50 degree and certificate programs to choose from, there is bound to be something of interest for most students. CCC’s academic programs focus on fulfilling general education requirements and preparing students for transfer or entering the workforce. The College’s vocational programs feature two years of intensive training, preparing students for employment immediately upon graduation.

CCC is located in the northwest corner of Kansas, approximately 50 miles from the Colorado and Nebraska borders.

The Mission of CCC is to challenge students to adapt to a diverse society, create opportunities for student growth, and connect student learning with professional experiences.

CCC serves students across the state of Kansas, the United States, and a multitude of international countries. According to the Kansas Board of Regents Community College Data Book, CCC’s student population as of the academic year 2020 was comprised of 12.9% of students younger than 18, 32.4% of students age 18-19, 35.3% of students age 20-24, 14.5% of students aged 25-44, 3.2% of students aged 45-64, and 1.7% of students aged 65 plus. This data illustrates that a little over 80% of CCC’s enrollment base are “traditional” students.

Is there a gender problem at Colby? Is male student recruitment and retention lagging?

I think much like most post-secondary education institutions, CCC has a definitive gender gap in enrollment numbers. According to CCC’s IPEDS Enrollment Data Fall 2020, only 28.9% of the college’s total enrollment are males. As an open access, inclusive community college, it is a little difficult to account for the large disparity in the enrollment demographics. CCC’s male student population has grown over the last five years, but so has the college’s female population. During the academic year 2015, female students accounted for nearly 2/3 of the enrollment at CCC, a trend that has persisted.

I do not believe male recruitment and retention are lagging necessarily; however, it is widely known that there is far greater disparity in the number of males entering post-secondary institutions across the country when compared to their female counterparts. I believe there are a variety of initiatives and efforts being utilized to engage and encourage the enrollment of males in post-secondary education, but statistically, across the nation, fewer men are choosing this route. This continual trend is very troubling because those of us in education believe very strongly in its value, and when there are definitive enrollment gaps, it is discouraging.

What are the main barriers to getting rural male students engaged in post-secondary education? What are the community harms when women make up a disproportionate share of the college-educated workforce in a given area?

I believe in a rural community, a lot of males enter into the family workforce. This can be the family business, farm, or assume other unique obligations that preclude them from enrolling in college. In my opinion, you see this at a very disproportionate frequency when comparing larger urban areas to rural communities.

I think we have to look at a little more of a global perspective when a disproportionate amount of one gender receives a college education and the other does not. In my opinion, this will have long-term reverberating effects that will negatively impact the workforce. Ultimately, when we have less qualified applicants for any position, it creates unique workforce challenges for everyone. I also believe the lack of equal educational achievement between the sexes can also potentially hurt the survival of rural communities.

What are the challenges in targeting male students with resources and programming? Is there an ethical dimension of this question given that women still face distinct challenges in education and the workforce despite the fact that they make up a larger percentage of students?

As an open access, inclusive community college, that is very difficult to put special emphasis on targeting one gender. CCC strives to be an inclusive environment where every student feels valued and wanted. Upon analyzing the educational offerings that CCC offers, there are various programs with inclusive fields that attract a wide variety of students. Programs like Agriculture, Agronomy, Animal Science, Criminal Justice, Farm and Ranch Management, and Physical Therapist Assistant have a very good gender balance within the classroom. Ultimately, the goal is to provide programs and educational offerings that students find engaging and help with achieving their respective career goals.

I absolutely believe there is an ethical dimension to only targeting one gender for enrollment. I believe the United States has more opportunities for upward mobility than any other country in the world; however, much like everything, I believe there is still room for improvement. The goal of every educational institution should be to offer educational opportunities that serve students and provide a transformative education that has a life-long impact, regardless of race, color, gender, age, disability, national origin or ancestry, sexual orientation, or religion. CCC has a strong belief that we are here to serve students and their respective goals. With that said, the dichotomy of placing emphasis or preference on one gender does create some very unique challenges.

How is Colby tackling this problem?

CCC has attempted broad recruiting efforts that are geared towards attracting all types of students. With that said, the college has created a series of recruitment materials and advertisements that are geared towards attracting non-traditional genders in various programs. CCC made a conscious effort to target men for nursing and veterinary nursing-related fields, as the predominant gender in those programs is female. CCC has also provided the same opportunity for females in non-traditional programs through attempts to engage women in programs like renewable/sustainable energy and telecommunications.

Additionally, CCC has expanded the college’s educational offerings to Norton Correctional Facility. A minimum/medium all-male security prison. The primary goal of this effort was to reduce recidivism and provide second chance opportunities; however, these targeted educational offerings do exclusively serve a male population. In my opinion, the college never undertook this initiative with the sole goal of serving male students, rather the efforts were done in an effort to serve the broader community.

I do believe every educational entity is going to have to figure out how to engage the male demographic. If higher education is not able to accomplish this, I believe it will have long-term negative effects not only in the workforce but also in society as a whole. When everyone has access to and takes advantage of receiving an education, everyone wins.

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