Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Girls Need Not Apply? Gender Balance at College

This week's U.S. News and World Report features an article on the increasing numbers of women who are being rejected in university admissions across the country. The trend now, especially at second-tier colleges and universities, is for admissions officers to offset women's advantages in college preparation by adjusting upwards the numbers of male students admitted for the incoming classes. The piece discusses the University of Richmond, which has a male to female ratio of 49 to 51 percent, and college officials are trying hard to keep it that way:

The University of Richmond is by no means unique in its challenge to keep the number of men and women enrolled roughly equal in the face of a dramatically changing pool of applicants. Nor is it the school where the gap in admissions rates is the most pronounced. Using undergraduate admissions rate data collected from more than 1,400 four-year colleges and universities that participate in the magazine's rankings, U.S. News has found that over the past 10 years many schools are maintaining their gender balance by admitting men and women at sometimes drastically different rates.

The schools that are most competitive—Harvard, Duke, and Rice for example—have so many applicants and so many high achievers that they naturally maintain balanced student bodies by skimming the cream of the crop. But in the tier of selective colleges just below them, maintaining gender equity on some campuses appears to require a thumb on the scale in favor of boys. It's at these schools, including Pomona, Boston College, Wesleyan University, Tufts, and the College of William and Mary, that the gap in admit rates is particularly acute.

The reason for these lower admissions rates for female students is simple, if bitterly ironic: From the early grades on up, girls tend to be better students. By the time college admissions come into the picture, many watchers of the "boy gap" agree, it's too late for the lads to catch up on their own. Indeed, beginning in those formative K-12 years, girls watch less television, spend less time playing sports, and are far less likely to find themselves in detention. They are more likely to participate in drama, art, and music classes—extracurriculars that are catnip for admissions officers. Across the board, girls study more, score better, and are less likely to find themselves in special education classes.

Females graduate from high school at a slightly higher rate than men and are more likely to forgo the workforce for an advanced degree. All of these factors help explain why the percentage of women in higher education has been steadily growing: From rough parity in 1980, women made up 57 percent of the 16.6 million American college goers in 2006. By 2010, the Department of Education expects the ratio to be around 60 to 40. In other words, that thumb on the boys' side of the admissions scale will have to press much harder in the coming years to keep those male dormitories at the University of Richmond and other campuses across the country fully populated.
There's an irony here: In just the few decades following the civil rights and feminist movements -- which opened the gates of higher education to women -- it appears the success of women has had the perverted effect of creating a backlash against men (which has to be rectified by discriminating against women to help men -- get that?). Nowadays it's not enough to just eliminate barriers to educational access, and let the chips fall where they may. The quest for diversity, and ethnic and gender balance, becomes all encompassing.

In any case, read the whole article.
The print version of the article includes the table showing the "admit gap" at schools where women have been so successful college officials began limiting the numbers of females accepted. It's really strange.

I've blogged before about the perversities of the university admissions process. For example, in the case of UC Riverside, the nation's most diverse public university, some black students accepted to UC Berkeley instead decide to attend the less prestigious Riverside campus so they'll feel "comfortable" under the correct levels of racial balance. Also, at Princeton University, admissions officials have been accused of rejecting high-qualified Asian students to prevent overrepresenation of that demographic group at the school.

I'm somewhat torn about this. Where there remain many areas of life not fully inclusive of women (i.e., gender discrimination indeed continues), some might argue that universities are just correcting for the discrimatory effects of affirmative action on white men. Some have even argued that there's in fact a "
war against boys" in America. It's a bit hard to sort out when social engineering overtakes the traditions of equal opportunity and individual achievement.

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