Of the many foolish arguments for President Biden’s decision to give $400 billion to people who borrowed to attend college, one stood out for its inanity: “Women owe over two-thirds of student debt,” tweeted Senator Elizabeth Warren. “Canceling student debt would help give millions of women a fair shot at starting a business, saving for a home, and pursuing their dreams. Student debt is a gender justice issue.”
As with most identity politics platitudes, the framing is absurd if one takes even a moment to think about it. Why should the gender of the debt holder matter? If student debt is bad, obstructs opportunity, and should be cancelled, that would presumably be the case no matter who was suffering. Gender justice seems rather beside the point.
The implication, of course, is that gender-based inequities have produced the harm, creating a special imperative to remedy it. But here things take a strange turn. Another term for “student debt” is “student loans,” and those loans are subsidized by the federal government to expand access to higher education. So the underlying, gender-based inequity is that women are disproportionately the recipients of subsidized higher education. Indeed, women today graduate from high school and attend college at much higher rates than men, a “gender justice” issue that Senator Warren is unlikely to tweet about anytime soon.
Fortunately, the topic is one that the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves tackles squarely in his new book, Of Boys and Men. For this week’s Compass Point, A Nation of Boys at Risk, Reeves has adapted a chapter from the book that outlines policies to improve the educational outcomes of young men, including an intensive effort to recruit more male teachers and expansion of vocational education as an alternative to the traditional college track.
“Consistent with evidence that, on average, males are a little more interested in things and females more interested in people,” explains Reeves, “male students seem to do better with a more ‘hands on’ and practical approach to learning and so benefit most from a more vocational approach.” He proposes the creation of at least 1,000 new technical high schools nationwide, which could enroll one million students and bring the share of all high school students in vocational programs up to 15%— still far below most other developed economies, but far above where we are today. Likewise, he proposes an aggressive expansion of apprenticeships. “It is true,” he notes, “that apprenticeships skew male—more than nine in ten apprentices are men—but given the overall challenges facing boys and men, I think this should be seen as a feature rather than a bug.”
This question of who would pursue non-college pathways, if they were offered, is one that has bedeviled education reform debates for decades. A common complaint about “tracking” is that disadvantaged and minority students, who tend to lag on traditional measures of academic achievement, would disproportionately land on alternative pathways and thus lose out on the opportunity to attend college. Note that this is the opposite of the complaint that Reeves anticipates, that investment in apprenticeships is unfair because men would be the primary participants and thus beneficiaries. One suspects that progressives looking for “racial justice” and “gender justice” issues would gladly lodge the two contradictory complaints at once.
A better approach would be to accept that different individuals will prefer and perform better on different pathways and, for that reason, effective public education must offer more than the college track onto which we steer everyone today. By definition, whoever—regardless of race, sex, or class—is least well served by the current system will gain the most from having access to alternatives. Those gains are ones we should be determined to achieve.
Read A Nation of Boys at Risk.