Skip to Navigation Skip to Content
Back to Impact Stories

Boys, Men, and Missed Opportunity

Boys Men and Missed Opportunity

What if young men in America and Vermont attended college or continued their training at the same rate as the state’s young women? What if boys and men did not commit suicide or die from overdose at rates that are significantly higher than girls and women?  

And what if, by fostering more public discussion about systemic trends in Vermont and the U.S., solutions emerged that benefitted everyone, including women and girls? Solutions that continued to acknowledge and embrace action on the corrosive gender discrimination that women and girls continue to face.              

This spring—along with the Richard E. & Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation, the University of Vermont, the University of Vermont Foundation, Community College of Vermont, J. Warren and Lois McClure Foundation, the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation and the Curtis Fund—the Vermont Community Foundation is co-hosting an event at the UVM Davis Center that will explore these issues and feature Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.

Reeves is the nationally known author whose latest book, “Of Boys and Men,” chronicles the economic and social changes in recent decades that have resulted in declining educational, social, and economic engagement for American men and boys. He was the keynote speaker at the Vermont Community Foundation’s 2018 Annual Meeting and also wrote the book “Dream Hoarders,” which helped inform the opportunity gap framework that is central to our work at the Foundation. His talk at UVM will take place on April 4.    

About the upcoming Reeves event, it is fair to ask: Why this event? Why now?? 

We at the Vermont Community Foundation (VCF) approach the idea of closing the opportunity gap with three considerations in mind. First, we know that a community in which people feel the absence of opportunity and hope is a breeding ground for disengagement and discord. We also believe that disengagement has shared economic, social, and civic consequences, which have played out over the last decade in the rise of opioid and suicide deaths, increasing extremism, and chronic workforce challenges. Further, we recognize that one of our key roles in the state is to periodically offer a perspective that might otherwise go unstated or unnoticed, because when philanthropy, public policy-making bodies, and educational institutions disregard shared and common experiences, we make a statement of indifference which compounds disengagement and hastens declining faith in the very institutions that are supposed to help our communities.

In our role, it is also important to embrace complexity: multiple things can be true. Gender discrimination remains stubbornly abundant in the experience of women and girls in our communities. Look no further than the findings of Change the Story and This Way UP spotlighted by the Vermont Women’s Fund, or gender gaps in corporate offices and the legislature to see that. And it is also true that educational performance, labor force participation, college enrollment, and other types of educational continuation among young men have dramatically declined. This is both a national and a Vermont condition.

Nationally, there are roughly three women for every two men enrolled in college. At UVM, there are currently 3,200 fewer undergraduate men than undergraduate women enrolled, in a student body of 11,600. At the Community College of Vermont, serving a very different student body with an average age of 28, enrollment is 72% female. Among Curtis Fund scholarship awardees, the gender split is roughly 70-30, female to male.

This condition exists amid the ongoing work of the VCF and the McClure Foundation with VSAC and the Community College of Vermont to expand access to education for all. Statistically, we know that continuing education after high school is a pre-condition for economic security. But it’s clear this message does not resonate with everyone. Boys are less likely to pursue education or training, especially if they come from low-income households or identify as a person of color. According to the Common Data Project the VCF funded with other New England community foundations, Vermont’s college continuation rate among boys is 38.5%, the lowest in New England.

The labor force participation rate of Vermont men ages 16 to 24 dropped over 10% during the pandemic and is several points lower than women of the same age. This statistic, taken with the college enrollment data, shows young men increasingly disengaged from school and work relative to the past, and when compared to young women. This, at a time when Vermont anticipates the need for 7,000 new teachers in the K-12 system in the next ten years, and when the shortage of trades and construction workers is well documented and presents a major constraint on projects like flood recovery and broadband buildout, and when the shortage of nursing staff is compounding extremely expensive health care costs, just to name a few critical gaps.

On a recent visit to a community member and long-time colleague in the Northeast Kingdom, this community member shared several stories: an overdose, a suicide, a drug-related violent crime against a family member—all in the last few months among male peers of her children. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and asked, “What are we going to do about the boys?” I wish this discussion was the exception, but it is not. In the United States, men are consistently four times more likely to die by suicide. In 2021, 70% of opioid deaths were men, and 71% occurred between ages 25 to 54. They are described as deaths of despair, and we should be asking where that despair comes from.

Last fall I took hope from an article by Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which highlighted strategies to support American democracy in an age of decline. Kleinfeld identified both institutional and social tactics. The social tactics she described included efforts to reduce the demand for political extremism and anti-democratic leaders through the revival of rural communities, the creation of a more positive view of masculinity, and the restoration of social status and wages to people working in laboring jobs.

As economic inequality compounded, those holding jobs without a college degree or certificate saw wages stagnate. This contributes to what Reeves has described in his writings as a decline in relational equality, which could be reversed in part through the restoration of employment as a basis of status and respect. But progress on this front seems to have stalled. As Kleinfeld put it:

“On the right, efforts to create a positive masculine vision have curdled toward reinforcing male dominance. Among progressives ... the concept of ‘toxic masculinity’ is strong, but a positive vision that holds space for emotionally and socially healthy men who also like pickup trucks, hunting, physical labor, physical strength and traditionally masculine pursuits is not. And neither vision is clear on where nonbinary individuals fit into their views.”

This polarity offers fertile ground for the erosion of community and escalating extremism.

When systems and institutions fail our neighbors, they fail our communities, and they fail us all. The heart of community is common experience. There are abundant gaps in that shared experience—by race, place, gender, sexual identity, and economic background—that we, as an organization and a collective of funders, have been committed to exploring and addressing over the years alongside many others. But when it comes to the experience of men and boys in our educational and social structures over recent decades, there is a notable vacuum. As an organization, part of our role in Vermont is not just to reinforce what is already understood in terms of how we close the opportunity gap, but to shine a light and pursue understanding in those areas which may be overlooked. Hopefully, our upcoming event with Richard Reeves will help us better understand what a number of our communities are experiencing and foster a thoughtful and perspective-deepening dialogue about these issues.

Visit  for information or to RSVP for the upcoming Richard Reeves keynote at the UVM Davis Center on Thursday, April 4th at 6:00 p.m. This event is free and open to the public.