WORCESTER, Mass. — When Debrin Adon and his male classmates talk about going to college, it always comes down to one thing.

“We’re more focused on money,” said Adon, 17, a senior at a public high school here. “Like, getting that paycheck, you know?” Whereas, “if I go to college, I’ve got to pay this much and take on all this debt.”

That’s among the many reasons the number of men who go to college has for years been badly trailing the number of women who go. And the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the ratio even more off balance.

While enrollment in higher education overall fell 2.5% in the fall — or by more than 461,000 students compared to the fall of 2019 — the decline among men was more than seven times as steep as the decline among women, according to an analysis of figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“In a sense, we have lost a generation of men to COVID-19,” said Adrian Huerta, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California who studies college attendance among boys and men.

“It’s a national crisis,” said Luis Ponjuan, an associate professor of higher education administration at Texas A&M University.

Adon, who attends the University Park Campus School, plans to buck the odds and go to college. He said he decided this after he realized that his parents, who immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic, want a better life for him. His mother is unemployed now, and his father runs a barbershop.

“It wasn’t dramatic,” he said of the moment he made up his mind to pursue a degree in computer science; he described it while standing outside on the asphalt that surrounds the 135-year-old redbrick school, which switched to entirely virtual instruction because of the pandemic. “You know when you’re in the shower and you just think about life?”

That kind of epiphany has eluded many other young men.

Women now comprise nearly 60% of enrollment in universities and colleges and men just over 40%, the research center reports. Fifty years ago, the gender proportions were reversed.

“We were already not doing so hot,” Ponjuan said. “This pandemic exacerbates what’s happening.”

It’s also opened jobs for young men from Worcester high schools at grocery stores and at Amazon, FedEx and other delivery companies, said Lynnel Reed, head guidance counselor at University Park, where nearly two-thirds of students are considered economically disadvantaged. The school is in a neighborhood of fast-food restaurants, liquor stores, used-car lots, dollar stores and triple-deckers — homes usually shared by three families, one on each level, that are a staple of urban New England.

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Lynnel Reed, head guidance counselor at the University Park Campus School in Worcester, Massachusetts, says many of her male students are getting jobs that may divert them from college. “How do you go away to college and leave your family struggling?”
Kate Flock for GBH/The Hechinger Report

“How do you go away to college and leave your family struggling when you know that if you just worked right now, you could help them right now with those everyday needs?” Reed said.

That’s a bigger pull for young men than for young women, said Derrick Brooms, a sociologist at the University of Cincinnati.

“It aligns with this perception that to be a man is to be self-sufficient,” Brooms said. “It’s a little bit different for girls. We’re teaching them about investing for even greater payoffs down the line.”

This has only been exacerbated by COVID-19.

“It makes more sense right now just to say, ‘I’m going to take a break because my family needs this money,’ ” said Huerta. And even if young men resolve to go to college later, he said, history shows that “their chances of actually coming back to higher ed are probably slim to none.”

Despite the allure of a paycheck versus going into debt and spending years pursuing a degree, the reality is that “a lot of these young men at 17 or 18 years old end up working 12-hour shifts, getting married, buy a truck, get a mortgage, and by the time they’re 30, their bodies are broken,” Ponjuan said. “And now they have a mortgage, three kids to feed and that truck, and no idea what to do next.”

Stopping education after high school not only limits men’s options — it threatens to further widen socioeconomic and political divides, Brooms said.

Not everyone has to go to college. Faster and less costly career and technical education can lead to in-demand, well-paying jobs in skilled trades, nursing, automation and other fields.

But graduates with bachelor’s degrees still generally make more than people with lesser credentials. And the pandemic has shown that people without degrees are more vulnerable to economic downturns.

Unemployment for them, nationwide, rose more than twice as fast in the spring as unemployment for people with bachelor’s degrees, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found.

Meanwhile, the shootings of Black civilians by police and the resulting outrage has left some young Black and Hispanic men who are still in high school “disenfranchised almost to the point where they’re feeling like they’re invisible, that the community doesn’t value who they are, at the very time that they’re developing their own identities,” Ponjuan said.

That, too, has an immediate impact on their motivation to get further educations, he and others said.

“We have a lot of young men who are completely disengaged from our society because, quite frankly, they don’t feel they’re being valued as men," Ponjuan said. "So they think, why even try when everybody sees me as a thug, as a delinquent, when everyone assumes the worst of me instead of assuming the best of me?”

Pedro Hidalgo, another senior at University Park, said he “never had that belief within myself” that he could go to college. Then “teachers in middle school actually helped me realize that I’m more than what I seem to think that I am at times. They just helped me progressively become more confident with my abilities, not even as just a student, but as a person.”

Now Hidalgo, 18, whose older brother started but never finished college, plans to pursue a degree in psychology and become a clinical therapist.

He said he made that decision after taking dual-enrollment courses offered by his high school in collaboration with neighboring Clark University.

When students take those college-level classes, “They’re like, ‘All right, you know what? Wait, I can do this,’ ” said Kellie Becker, head guidance counselor at nearby North High School. “It eases their transition to college and builds their confidence.”

It was the dual-enrollment program that clicked with Abdulkadir Abdullahi, 18, a student at North.

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Abdulkadir Abdullahi, a senior at North High School in Worcester, Massachusetts. “I didn’t think I was going to college. I didn’t think it could be useful to me in the real world,” says Abdullahi, who changed his mind after taking college courses while still in high school.
Kate Flock for GBH/The Hechinger Report

“I didn’t think I was going to college. I didn’t think it could be useful to me in the real world,” said Abdullahi, son of a single father who’s a postal carrier. “I would rather hang out with my friends and, like, slack.”

Then an older sister went to college and Abdullahi took a dual-enrollment course.

“I was, like, ‘Oh, I could really do this,’ ” he said. Until then, “I always thought college was going to be, like, writing 20-page essays every other week, staying up overnight.”

Now he plans to get a degree in sociology.

Some of their male classmates still have qualms, said Adon, Abdullahi and Hidalgo.

“They don’t think they're smart enough,” Adon said. “They don’t think they can do it. They doubt themselves a little bit because of their life and what they’ve been through and what they’ve been seen as.”

In those dual-enrollment classes, Hidalgo, said, there are more girls than boys. “It’s intimidating because, you know, you don’t want to say the wrong thing.”

Young men seem to have shorter attention spans, Abdullahi said. “There’s more distractions for guys. The guy is always the class clown. I think they just lose their motivation.”

There’s research to back that up. Boys are more likely than girls as early as elementary school to be held back, a Brown University researcher found. They are almost 9 percentage points less likely to graduate from high school, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“Boys realize that teachers and counselors aren’t invested in them in the same way that they’re invested in girls,” Huerta said. “Teachers and counselors are more concerned with ensuring the boys are doing the basics — behaving in class — versus ensuring that they’re college-ready.”

So long has this been going on that enrollment at Worcester State University, across town from the University Park Campus School, is now more than 60 percent women.

In addition to all the other issues caused by the mass disappearance of men from college, it’s a big problem for universities and colleges struggling to fill seats, said Ryan Forsyth, Worcester State’s vice president for enrollment management.

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Ryan Forsyth, vice president for enrollment management at Worcester State University in Worcester, Massachusetts, where male enrollment has dropped below 40 percent.
Kate Flock for GBH/The Hechinger Report

He, too, sees the pandemic as encouraging more young male high school seniors to jump straight into the workforce, “rather than seeing the value of going into a college for a two- or four-year degree to really invest in themselves,” Forsyth said on the cold and nearly empty campus.

That seems unlikely to change soon, Ponjuan said.

“This pandemic only highlights the unspoken truth that it is creating short-term solutions for these young men but not long-term opportunities,” he said. “Long term, they’re going to top out. They’re not going to be able to advance. It has created a false sense of security that they’ll get by just delivering packages.”

This story about men and college was co-produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization.