The Quiet Preference for Men in Admissions

It’s a well-known fact that there’s a severe gender imbalance in undergraduate college populations: about 57 percent of undergrads these days are female and only 43 percent male, the culmination of a trend over the past few decades in which significantly fewer young men than young women either graduate from high school or enroll in college. It’s also a well-known fact—at least among college admissions officers—that many private institutions have tried to close the gender gap by quietly relaxing admissions standards for male applicants, essentially practicing affirmative action for young men. What they’re doing is perfectly legal, even under Title IX, the 1972 federal law that bans sex discrimination by institutions of higher learning receiving federal funds. Title IX contains an exemption that specifically allows private colleges that aren’t professional or technical institutions to prefer one sex over the other in undergraduate admissions. Militant feminists and principled opponents of affirmative action might complain about the discrimination against women that Title IX permits, but for many second- and third-tier liberal arts colleges lacking male educational magnets such as engineering and business programs, the exemption may be a lifesaver, preventing those smaller and less prestigious schools from turning into de facto women’s colleges that few young people of either sex might want to attend.
Now, however, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has decided to turn over this rock carefully set in place by admissions committees. The commission launched an investigation last fall into the extent of male preferences in admissions decisions at 19 various institutions of higher learning. These include public universities (where such preferences are illegal under Title IX); elite private institutions such as Georgetown and Johns Hopkins; smaller liberal arts schools (Gettysburg College, with 2,600 undergraduates, is on the list); religious schools (the Jesuit-run University of Richmond and Messiah College in Grantham, Pa.); and historically black Virginia Union University, also in Richmond. On May 14 the commission’s general counsel, David P. Blackwood, announced that four of the 19 schools–Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Gettysburg, and Messiah—had raised legal issues concerning compliance with the commission’s subpoenas, and that Virginia Union, while responding politely, had not complied in any way. Blackwood said that the commission might have to ask the Justice Department for help in obtaining admissions data from Virginia Union.

The commission’s investigation has triggered a variety of ideological conflicts and created some unusual ideological allies—and it may ultimately provide a forum for rethinking Title IX itself. Critics charge that the U.S. Education Department has interpreted the 1972 law so as to make it illegal for colleges to attract males by more palatable means such as men’s sports teams, forcing them to resort to outright sex discrimination in admissions.
On one side of the current conflict are the opponents of affirmative action for any group, whether based on sex, ethnicity, or religion. Typically such opponents compare efforts to limit the number of women in a college population to the quotas for Jews that once prevailed in the Ivy League and the de facto quotas disfavoring high-achieving Asians that have typically arisen as a consequence of “diversity” measures favoring blacks and Hispanics. Squarely in the anti-affirmative-action camp is the instigator of the Civil Rights Commission’s admissions probe, Gail Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego appointed to the commission by the Senate in 2007 and one of the backers of Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot measure that outlawed racial and other preferences by public institutions in California. “The exemption in Title IX was created to protect single-sex schools—to allow men’s schools to remain men’s schools and women’s schools to remain women’s schools,” Heriot said in a telephone interview. “The admissions policies of coeducational schools weren’t covered.”
On the other side is a group that might be called “biological realists,” a group that undoubtedly includes many admissions officers and alumni fundraisers. Their argument is simple: Call it sexist, or call it simply hormonal, but most young people want to attend a co-educational school where the number of students of each sex is roughly equal. There are almost no all-men’s colleges left in the United States, and only around 50 all-women’s colleges (two longtime holdouts, Hood in Maryland and Randolph-Macon in Virginia, went fully co-educational in 2003 and 2007 respectively, and even the most academically prestigious of the survivors, such as Bryn Mawr and Mt. Holyoke, draw a significant percentage of their student bodies from socially conservative populations in the Mideast and East Asia where single-sex education is the norm).
Furthermore, once any institution is perceived as predominantly female, whether a profession such as K-12 teaching or a college with a severe female-to-male gender imbalance, it loses prestige. Men shy away and eventually so do the most talented women, who want to be where the high-status men are. If high-school seniors won’t apply to a college because they don’t like the sex mix, the college drops both in perceived selectivity—the U.S. News rankings where the applications-to-acceptances ratio is paramount—and actual selectivity as it scrambles to fill seats with less able students. It’s a rule of thumb that the less academic prestige a college has, the more likely it is to suffer from gender imbalance among both applicants and those who choose to attend (there’s no gender imbalance at Harvard or the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, for example). At community colleges that take all comers, for example, 62 percent of students are female, and the for-profit open-admissions University of Phoenix boasts on its website that it has a 67 percent female student body. “The lower the pecking order, the more women,” said Heriot.
It’s a potential death spiral of which most college administrators and governing boards are well aware. In 2005 trustees at the University of North Carolina’s flagship campus at Chapel Hill were distressed to discover that the entering freshman class was 58 percent female. Some trustees suggested that the university create some sort of affirmative action for men, an act that would have violated the law.
There’s a third interest group in the mix, the hard-line feminists who insist either that males as historical oppressors should never qualify for admissions preferences, or that men’s general lack of interest in institutions and activities that are “too female” is not a biological but a cultural phenomenon that can be reversed by role-modeling, mentoring, and sensitivity sessions. In a forum this spring for Education Next Susan McGee Bailey, executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and principal author of the American Association of University Women’s 1992 report “How Schools Shortchange Girls,” argued that male high school graduation rates and male college enrollments would increase if there were a national campaign to encourage fathers to read to their children and more boys in the K-12 system had access to “men who hold other than traditionally male jobs.”
On the issue of gender preferences in admissions, the feminists (who tend to favor affirmative action in other contexts) and the affirmative-action opponents have become strange-bedfellows. In a 2006 op-ed for the New York Times, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College in Ohio, described her admissions committee’s struggles to attain something approaching an even gender balance in Kenyon’s incoming freshman class, for which 55 percent of applicants were female. Britz candidly admitted that when it came to marginal candidates (Kenyon, a highly ranked liberal arts college, turns down two applicants for every one it admits), young men were far more likely to get a pass and a fat envelope than young women with similar grades, SAT scores, and high-school achievements. “Beyond the availability of dance partners for the winter formal, gender balance matters in ways both large and small on a residential college campus. Once you become decidedly female in enrollment, fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive.”
The feminist reaction to Britz’s op-ed was predictably furious. Katha Pollitt, a columnist for the Nation, called the Kenyon policy “scandalous” and said in an interview, “Affirmative action is intended to remedy past discrimination. There is no past discrimination against white males.” Feminists have been similarly unsympathetic to the plight of Virginia Union in its investigation by the Civil Rights Commission. Historically black colleges face a particularly difficult plight with respect to gender imbalances because the African-American undergraduate population is 59 percent female. The comments to a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the Justice Department’s possible involvement with the commission’s investigation included such remarks as “Men are *not* a group that is subject to affirmative action legislation” and “Remember black men got to vote 50 years before women of any color.”
The Civil Rights commission has the power to make only recommendations, not rules, and Heriot would not say whether it would consider recommending statutory changes to the Title IX admissions exemption that would, say, apply it only to historically single-sex schools. “The first step is getting the records from these schools and finding out whether they’re giving preferential treatment to men,” she said. Heriot did say that the commission might suggest steps that colleges could take to attract more male applicants and thus reduce overtly gender-preferential admissions.
That may be tricky, however, because one obvious strategy for luring more men to a campus would be to offer more sports programs that appeal to them (men seem to gravitate toward competitive, team-based athletics). That, however, would get the college into trouble with the Education Department for enforcing the Title IX rules that, practically speaking, require spending on athletics that reflects the campus male-female student population ratio, whether or not female students actually want the sports offered. Thanks in part to the gender imbalance, colleges have been cutting, not adding, men’s sports in order to comply with the department’s interpretation of Title IX. The Civil Rights Commission recently recommended a modification to those rules that would allow colleges to survey their students to determine male and female interest in athletic programs and then spend accordingly, but the Obama administration’s Education Department promptly rejected that proposal, foreclosing what could have been a way for colleges to increase their male student numbers without resorting to preferences.
The Education Department’s swift rejection of the commission’s recommendation reflected today’s political realities in matters of gender policy. The Civil Rights Commission, now far more conservative than the Obama administration thanks to Bush’s appointments, is likely to wield little influence over administration policy. The feminists who form an influential element of Obama’s Democratic Party base are undoubtedly perfectly willing to align themselves with Heriot and other conservative opponents of affirmative action to denounce male preferences in college admissions. Nonetheless, wedded to their ideological view of females as a perpetual victim group, feminists are unlikely to approve of any non-preference-based effort to attract male students to college campuses. The Education Department’s prompt rejection of the commission’s moderate and realistic proposal to allow colleges to gauge their female students’ interest in athletics before targeting 57 percent of their sports budgets to women’s teams was a sign of this presidential administration’s enslavement to a position that the interests, needs, and desires of young men aren’t worthy of even minimal consideration, let alone legal recognition.
It is not hard to sympathize with Heriot and other principled opponents of affirmative action on the Civil Rights Commission (the commission’s scholarly vice-chairman, Abigail Thernstrom, comes to mind). They have spent more than a decade arguing that racial and ethnic preferences and quotas not only violate the letter and spirit of civil-rights laws that explicitly call for equal treatment but may actually harm members of the groups that supposedly benefit from preferred treatment but know full well that they are actually objects of condescension. Why, affirmative-action opponents may well ask, should gender be treated any differently from race, given that feminists themselves insist that women are societal victims, too, and demand the same sorts of special concessions that some racial and ethnic minorities have received?
It ought to be possible to argue that gender is different from race or ethnicity as a human category, the latter being a product of genetic drift, cultural isolation and religious differences, and the former an essential element in every human being’s identity. Sexual dimorphism, with the very real physical and psychological differences between the sexes that it entails, isn’t a cultural construct but the very machine of human reproduction and the passing on of human civilization: mating, the making of families, and the raising of children, which is arguably the most important of all human activities. The desire of many high school seniors to spend four years of their young adulthood in a setting like that in real life where neither sex outnumbers the other—and their willingness to vote with their feet if the setting proves otherwise—is different in kind from the discomfort that some might feel where there are “too many” Jews or blacks or Asians. Many college administrators are well aware of this and have quietly adjusted their admissions policies accordingly. And it’s hard to see what’s wrong with that, especially when they’re dealing with borderline applicants who can’t be said to qualify for the freshman class strictly on their merits.
The Civil Rights Commission’s investigation of male preferences in college admissions policies may not yield any regulatory or policy changes, given the ideological predilections of the current administration, but it is likely to accomplish one thing: a shedding of light on the biological and psychological realities of relations between the sexes that have, in the admissions process so far defied both the dogma of the feminists and the best intentions of the principled opponents of affirmative action.
This is a corrected version of the original text, which incorrectly said that Gail Heriot was appointed to the Civil Rights Commission by George .W. Bush and inaccurately stated that Kenyon turns down three applicants for every two it admits. The college turns down two applicants for every one it admits.


15 thoughts on “The Quiet Preference for Men in Admissions

  1. “You do understand that what valid and useful knowledge that can be had in a University, not to mention the very idea of a University itself, are 99.9% the creation of the male sex.”
    Really, Richard? 99.9% of it? Even if that were so, what does that have to do with anything? It’s irrelevant. Oh wait, I forgot– apparently, we ladyfolk don’t ever contribute “valid” or “useful” knowledge.
    “The k-12 institutions teach with a female style of learning. Many boys are lost long before college. Girls give the grade givers and test scorers just what they want. Boys not so. It is not as natural. Their scores suffer.”
    “Female style of learning?” You really think all girls and all boys only learn a certain way? When I was a kid in school, I didn’t like sitting still and listening for hours on end, but some of the boys did fine and got good grades. I guess I wasn’t a girl, then, was I? I must’ve been a boy and then magically transformed into a woman.

  2. Certainly K-12 is failing boys. That has been studied and some causes identified – which we will never solve in an anti-spending, anti-education culture. For the guys who make it to college, it seems like the best and brightest have been moving into finance and banking, computers and high tech, or Hollywood the last 15-20 years, as the salaries and possibilities for “getting rich quick” have been centered there.

  3. Using the word ‘equal’ is misleading in a political context. Equal is only true in mathematics and morality. We should strive towards ‘equitable’ which means a fair (though not always equal) sharing of resources. Trying to achieve absolute equality between the sexes, racial groups (insert whatever group you wish to protect) will only lead to a perversion of what you originally set out to correct.
    BTW, those feminists can really carry a grudge.

  4. I can tell you that I attended college in the late 90’s and it was a liberal arts college and it was a feminists bastion. I was a male athlete and came to the realisation after graduating from there that it was a complete waste of time and money. College today for men is like being stuck in a class with the women from “The View”, it is slanted so far left and male bashing such an art form a male would have to be crazy to want to attend. Any prospective college male reading this I say this: Save your time, money and your sanity

  5. First, I heartily second the comments of hattip, Jim Oz, and CoastWalk — every word of them.
    A couple of weeks ago, one of my daughters graduated from high school and another daughter from middle school (8th grade). For each, we were invited to and attended an “honors ceremony”, for achievements like “all-As”, “very high GPA”, etc. At both events the students being honored were four-times more likely to be female than male.
    To those who think this result was produced by an education system that offers equal opportunities to both boys and girls, I have nothing to say to you other than that you are beyond help.
    My solution: Beginning at about age 10, boys and girls should have sex-segregated education until college (or at least until their junior years in high school).
    Oh, and to cure the gender imbalance in colleges: Start canceling the courses that have the worse female/male ratios. Unfortunately, because there aren’t many Marxists teaching STEM courses, my suggestion here bumps up against the Marxist power establishment that dominates nearly all U.S. campuses today.

  6. This is a fascinating swing of the pendulum, one which angers both feminists and those like myself who are anti-affirmative action regardless of who benefits. I happen to have attended Bryn Mawr because I felt comfortable in the all female atmosphere and didn’t need testosterone to feel that I was getting the ‘college’ experience. However, I was absolutely devastated when Haverford, our brother school, went ‘co-ed’ because it thought that was the way they would or could attract a better, more diverse population. It has, essentially, made the school less competitive and in all respects less elite. Bryn Mawr, however, remains top echelon. When you start judging people based more on their irrelevant biological attributes than those that count in academia (brains) you do a great disservice to students, and their future employers.

  7. Maybe if the gov’t started paying attention(and doing something about) the crisis for men/boys in the educational system then there wouldn’t be any need for affirmative action for men, but as long as they continue to ignore it I dont see any problem with affirmative action for males. It’s the least they can do.

  8. The k-12 institutions teach with a female style of learning. Many boys are lost long before college. Girls give the grade givers and test scorers just what they want. Boys not so. It is not as natural. Their scores suffer.

  9. Hmmm..we’re supposed to be surprised that fewer men waste time on college, despite the fact that in the early 80s Congress dictated that anyone, not white and male, would be preferred for educational opportunities. Seems like cause and effect to me. BTW, I advise any young white man considering college to not waste his time or money.

  10. I work at a healthcare ad agency and it’s 75% female. Maybe the new gender balance of schools is preparing us for the work world quite well.

  11. If you want more men on campus, throw out the Cultural and Economic Marxists, and the anti-male feminists. Throw them out of the k-12 system too. While you are at it, grant degrees that actually mean something in real life. Some actual intellectual standards rather than the idiotic PC blather which now infects the Academey might be nice too. College education today is mostly a waste of money for most areas of study. The Left has ruined the liberal arts, with the feminists as one of the chief vandals. Little happens in most classrooms other than Marxist indoctrination. It is mostly a place for the academic branch of the Democrat Nomenklatura to live out their pseudo-intellectual and parasitic “careers”.
    And, Ms Allen, what a condescending little bigot you are. You do understand that what valid and useful knowledge that can be had in a University, not to mention the very idea of a University itself, are 99.9% the creation of the male sex. Offer more sports indeed. Head over to the engineering, math and science departments once in a while. This mindless promotion of females–most particularly feminists–is the sign of a decadent and dying culture. Such has it always been. If the Academy does not reform itself soon it will become as irrelevant. If America does not kick the Marxists out of the core institutions of our civilization, we will end up a third world vassal of the Asians, a group that has altogether differnet notions about education and gender. The education bubble, just like all the other liberal dream worlds, is about to burst. The joke may be on the gals.

  12. I love the way the radical feminist perspective has been logically turned on its head. Feminists have long argued that any sex imbalance, like in sports programs, or engineering/science fields, could not possibly be due to student interest, but had to be due to evil discrimination, to be remedied by rigid affirmative action quotas. This, despite the fact that many other fields, outside of engineering and science, have long had extreme imbalances against men. But when now faced with an anti- male imbalance, in the whole student body, all of the sudden these gender counting rules go out the window. Complete double standard. The obvious solution this article suggests, allowing more funding for male sports, because many more men want to play college sports, would solve the problem by attracting men via sports, with no need for the much less fair pro male affirmative action on test scores, but of course that sensible solution is impossible.

  13. Surely it violates no laws for a college facing a shortage of male applicants to develop or expand its course offerings in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields, which are known to attract men. MIT, for example, is 55% male even today, and was 75% male within the lifetime of the current student body. Caltech skews even more Title IX, as currently interpreted, restricts sex-segregated athletics but places no restrictions on courses offered. As a holder of a STEM doctorate, who would be happy to hold a position as a tenured professor, I heartily endorse this solution.

  14. I went to the University of Richmond. Unless campus has changed dramatically since the late 1990s, it’s not a Jesuit school. Its academic heritage does reach back to a Baptist seminary, but even that connection is now a very small one between the Viginia Baptist denomination and the school (the school’s chaplain was always a Virginia Baptist, and the denomination had a small scholarship for Virginia Baptists who attended – again, as of about 15 years ago). Incidentally, it had a very interesting mechanism by which it justified different standards of admission for men and women: the school was founded as separate men’s and women’s colleges that shared some facilities and faculty. The two have gradually united in a lot of ways, but – looking at the website – still maintain their own student governments and honor councils.

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