Both nationally and in southeastern Minnesota, men are a shrinking presence on college campuses.

They are rejecting higher education in such numbers that the gender gap on college campuses has reached record levels.

The trend is not a new one at Rochester Community and Technical College and Winona State University. Both campuses have had sizable gender gaps for years. What is striking is that the gap continues to widen.

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The gender gap at RCTC, for example, stood at 59 percent women and 39 percent men in fall 2015. (Two percent of the total was not reported.) Six years later, the gap is closer to 2-to-1 (64 percent women and 35 percent men).

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At WSU, the ratio of women to men has gone from 61-39 in 2015 to 67-33 in 2021. At Riverland Community College, it stands at 60-40.

The numbers echo national trends. At the close of the 2020-21 academic year, women made up 59.5 percent of college students, an all-time high, and men 40.5 percent, according to enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit research group.

U.S. colleges and universities had 1.5 million fewer students compared with five years ago. and men accounted for 71 percent of the decline, The Wall Street Journal reported.

And the gap is only expected to grow.

"It's a huge concern," said RCTC president Jeffery Boyd. "The message of the importance of higher education -- it's a marathon, not a sprint -- has gotten lost."

Many are aware of gender imbalances on college campuses, but even educators are surprised at how lopsided it has become.

College-age students who pass on college often begin flashing warning signs as early as elementary school.

"Some of it goes back to middle school and elementary school, where they have an interest and then they start losing that interest," said Denise McDowell, WSU vice president for enrollment management and student life. "Once they sort of get behind, we see that even the drop-out rate for young men is higher than for young women."

The problem is not a new one. At a previous job at Kansas City Kansas Community College, McDowell was grappling with the issue as far back as 2008. The school created a program for young men called "The Fringe Benefits of Education."

"It was an issue for young men and particularly young men of color," McDowell said.

Men often reassess their attitudes toward college several years after earning a high school diploma. After they go out and work for a time, a light switches on. They begin to appreciate a college education's value. And universities need to be prepared and help navigate them at that point, McDowell said.

The current economic climate may be a contributing factor to the yawning gap. Many young men are jumping into construction trades, lured by the good pay and benefits. After hearing harrowing tales about a lifetime of student debt, many are opting to shun higher education's costs, and finding the rewards of blue-collar work more certain.

"They're jumping right straight into the workforce, and they are making good money these days," said Kasson-Mantorville Public Schools Superintendent Mark Matuska. "Carpenters are making good money. Welders are making good money."

Educators say that college-bound students often have a parent advocating for higher education. Young people are likely to pursue college where parents talk about its value.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has put financial pressure on families due to lost income or jobs. And young people are feeling the pull to work and help out at home, McDowell said.

"If they're coming from homes where there are single parents, they feel this need to help out Mom," she said.

For Jackson Kennedy, a Kasson-Mantorville graduate, college was never part of the equation. Soon after graduation, he started working as an excavator, moving dirt with a skid loader and other earth-moving equipment.

At age 18, he now owns and operates his own excavation firm called GroundWorks. He owns a truck-and-trailer and mini-excavator.

Kennedy said the work appealed to him because it was hands-on. He doesn't expect a college education to be an option for him later in life. Whatever new things he needs to learn can be learned on the job.

"College to me looks like another four years of school," Kennedy said. "And I see a lot of people go into college, they study hard for a degree, and it seems a lot of them come out and don't even use that degree."

College may not be for everybody. But on average, a college education confers enhanced earning power. U.S. college graduates earn, over the course of their working lives, more than a million dollars beyond those with only a high-school diploma.

It's a message that Boyd tries to stress. A college education offers flexibility. A college graduate who loses a job is in a better position to rebound and find another job than one than without a degree. College credentials are also more likely to lead to earning a family-sustaining wage.

"I think society as a whole, we want the quick-fix solutions," Boyd said. "OK, I'm making 20 bucks an hour. That seems pretty good, until you get a family and you have kids. And that 20 bucks an hour would seem a lot better if it were 40 bucks an hour."

Boyd points to himself as example. Through the years, Boyd has gone from earning an associate's degree to a doctorate. And those credentials have led to better-paying jobs. Not once, through economic downturns and recessions over the years, has he taken a pay cut.

Yet, men still make more money than women and are a dominant presence in the upper rungs of corporate boardrooms. So while the trend is concerning, women are still paying catch-up. And that reality may be one reason there aren't more headlines about the shrinking presence of men on campuses.

Women are breaking through careers once viewed as the province of men, but women still lag far behind men in earning power.

"As a mother and an educator, I'm so excited to talk about this, but I would be remiss without saying, 'women still have a long way to go,'" McDowell said.