The Problem with the “Boy Problem”

At InsideHigherEd.com, Richard Whitmire has an interesting discussion entitled “Soon-to-Be Open Secret” on the delicacies of the “boy problem” on college campuses. The problem itself is simple. An achievement gap between male and female high school students has opened, and it’s pushing college enrollments nationally toward 60-40 proportions (in many schools and systems, women already make up more than 60 percent of the population). Girls get better grades, take more AP courses, do more homework, participate in more extra-curricular activities, and have fewer behavioral problems. Admissions officers can’t help but admit them in higher numbers.

Colleges want to keep the ratio as even as possible, however, for a variety of reasons. One is that when one sex significantly outnumbers the other, sexual rivalries and competitions set in. When we head toward a two-thirds majority (remember the Jan and Dean line, “Two girls for every boooooyyyyyyyyyyy”), the sexual gamesmanshiip of social life goes up. Added to that, admissions people worry that strong female students won’t want to go to school where the number of men is low.

And so, Whitmire writes, “favoring men is an open secret at private, four-year college, where there’s no legal penalty for helping men. Actually, it’s even done by some public colleges willing to roll the dice in the hope they won’t get sued.”

Why, he wonders, haven’t more people talked about the problem? Why isn’t affirmative action for boys as controversial as affirmative action for African Americans and Hispanics?

“Because,” Whitmire answers, “all the interested parties have signed off on the conspiracy.” Feminist groups say nothing because if they announce that women far exceed men in academic achievement, “it drains credibility from their claim as a disadvantaged group in need of redress.” Conservative groups, he says, “prefer to sue on the issue on racial preferences and have not historically flown to the defense of women.” I think a better explanation for conservative silence is that conservatives believe that if female applicants look stronger than male applicants, you go with the former and skip the bean counting by anatomy.

Others remain silent as well. “College officials? They aren’t going to flush themselves into the open on this issue. Most female students want to see more men on campus, regardless of how they get there. High school senior girls are generally unaware and unorganized. And men, well, they’re pretty much oblivious… and when they land on gender unbalanced campuses, they are, well, delighted.”

Although Whitmire doesn’t mention it, the boy problem also puts pressure on standard arguments for affirmative action by race. One of them is the “proportionate representation” argument, which says that the population of the student body should reflect the population at large. Another is the “disparate outcomes” argument, which says that if we get gaps in achievement, then something is wrong with the process. Related to that is the “institutional racism” argument, which says that discriminatory effects work not through individual actions and decisions, but through systemic influences. And there is the “role model” argument, which claims that if students don’t have teachers who look like them, they’ll lose confidence in their ability to succeed.

Each of these arguments can apply to the boy problem, but their application troubles people making them. They don’t want to extend “proportionate representation” status to boys because that would include middle-class white boys in the disadvantaged group. They don’t want to talk about disparate outcomes and “institutional sexism” because that would force an examination of curricula, course work, and other systemic elements of schooling that might favor females–a reversal of, for instance, the longstanding protest against school attitudes and ideologies that discourage women from going into math and science. They don’t want to raise the role model argument because then they might have to address the dominance of female teachers in elementary and middle-school classrooms.

Soon they may have to, however. As Whitmire notes, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is conducting an investigation of male-based affirmative action practices. In six months, it will release its findings

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory.

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