It’s a Girl’s World

By Alex Kingsbury

U.S. News and World Report: America’s Best Colleges 2007 — The University of La Verne sits on 26 acres of suburbia between the city of Los Angeles and the mountains. It’s a small place, with just over 1,600 students, most of whom live in three drab and boxy-looking dormitories. A decade ago, one was exclusively male, one was female, and one was coed. But faced with a surge in women students (who made up 65 percent of the student body last year, up from 58 percent a decade ago), the school had to convert two thirds of the male facility for women’s use. “Everyone knows guys are scarce on this campus,” says Nick Solis, a sophomore, who adds that the women in his coed dorm have taken to using the men’s room out of convenience.

Bathroom space is only one of the issues that the spike in female enrollment has forced La Verne to address. Administrators are searching for males to serve as resident assistants, fill spots in student government, and join student organizations. Put simply, the school needs to lure, hook, and land more males.

These days, admissions officers around the country are contemplating how to do exactly that: find more qualified students with the Y chromosome. And it’s not easy. Females graduate from high school at a slightly higher rate than men. Female high school grads are more likely to forgo the workforce and seek a college education, and they are more likely to succeed once there–just 33 percent of men finish their degrees in four years, for example, compared with 40 percent of women. All of which helps 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 2002, and the Department of Education expects that percentage to increase at least through 2014.

That’s an affirmative. The root of the gender imbalance can be found in the early grades. “There’s no need to talk about affirmative action for boys in university admissions because by then it’s too late,” says Tom Mortenson, an Iowa-based education researcher who has been watching the gender gap for more than a decade. “We have to go way back down the pipeline to find answers and solutions.” Indeed, beginning in those formative K-12 years, girls watch less television, play fewer sports, and are far less likely to have behavioral problems. They are more likely to participate in drama, art, and music classes and far less likely to be placed in special education. Across the board, girls study more, score better, and graduate in greater numbers. So when it comes time to apply to colleges, many girls are better qualified and more well-rounded than their male peers.

At first blush, the increase in college-going females seems like good news, especially since a generation ago women were barred from some of the country’s best schools. It seems hard to believe that many universities, including Boston College, Johns Hopkins, the University of Virginia, Brown, Dartmouth, Notre Dame, and Harvard weren’t fully coeducational until the 1970s. (Men, of course, weren’t allowed into Radcliffe, Barnard, and Smith, among others.) But while women have made dramatic progress since then, men have not kept pace and are now greatly outnumbered on some campuses. In 2004, at two schools in the City University of New York system, for example, men made up less than 30 percent of the student body.

In colleges, and particularly at small liberal arts schools, females outnumber males in both applications and enrollment–a shifting demographic that has produced many unexpected results: Admissions officers are turning away qualified female applicants in the interests of creating classes with gender parity; schools are finding that female-dominated campuses are less attractive for both female and male applicants; and already researchers are thinking ahead to the long-term implications of a shortage of suitably educated peers for women to marry.

What does the increase in females mean for applicants? It is tough to gauge, partly because admissions officers are often loath to discuss the specifics of their selection process. And they’re extra sensitive when it comes to issues of preferential treatment for one group of students at the expense of another. While the Supreme Court did weigh in on the issue of affirmative action for minority students–endorsing the use of race as one of many elements in admissions–it has not considered gender targeting in admissions.

That targeting, in practice, can come down to something as simple as expected field of study. Women hoping to study engineering might find themselves at an advantage while others may not. As one admissions officer from a small midwestern liberal arts college puts it: “God help the female English majors who apply to this school.”

Testosterone counts. Qualified men, on the other hand, can find themselves in a more advantageous position–so much so that college counselors have begun advising some men to “emphasize their maleness.” Steven Goodman, an independent college counselor for 18 years, now tells his male students to submit pictures or trumpet their sports activities. “I also tell them to write about themselves in great detail on their essays, which is something that female applicants are traditionally known for,” he says. “Anything to catch an admissions officer’s eye.”

But the applicants who need to worry most about catching eyes are the girls. As selective colleges try to maintain some semblance of gender parity, it’s more difficult for women to make the cut. That’s no secret to high schoolers or their counselors. “We try to tell our students that it’s a positive thing, that it’s the result of women doing so well in the past few decades. But that’s not what a high school senior wants to hear,” says Kelly Oberle, a college counselor at the Immaculate Heart Academy, an all-girls school in New Jersey.

The extent to which gender affects admissions depends on the school and the year’s applicants. At the top of the heap, the Ivies, for example, the number of qualified male and female applicants each year is roughly the same and so is the acceptance rate for each of the sexes. Yet the little-discussed reality at many other selective schools is that maintaining gender parity on campus is coming at the cost of turning away more female applicants. Northwestern University, for example, is 53 percent female, a rate essentially unchanged since 1997. Then, the acceptance rates for men and women were both about 30 percent. Last year, however, while the acceptance rate for male students was 31 percent, the acceptance rate for female students was 28 percent. And in 2004, the numbers were even more dramatic: Only 26 percent of the female applicants got acceptance letters, compared with 34 percent of their male counterparts. Northwestern maintains that it does not officially consider gender in its criteria for admissions; the gender balance, it says, is determined strictly by the quality of the applicant pool. “There is no pressure placed on admissions staff to maintain any ratio based on sex, and our decisions are made without regard to gender,” says Keith Todd, director of undergraduate admissions.

Northwestern is far from unique in having rough parity but skewed acceptance rates. In 2004, for example, males had a better shot than females at getting in at William and Mary (43 percent vs. 31 percent), Boston College (37 percent vs. 29 percent), Pomona (24 percent vs. 17 percent), and Tufts (30 percent vs. 25 percent). Females, meanwhile, had an easier time getting in at tech schools. MIT favored women in its admit rate by 16 percentage points, Carnegie Mellon University by 13 points, and California Institute of Technology by 12 points.

Yet it’s tough to fault colleges for trying to maintain parity. The university experience, after all, is only partially about academics, and students strongly consider campus climate when choosing where to apply. Anecdotal evidence suggests that once a campus reaches a certain ratio, say 60-40 women to men, both females and males are less likely to apply. “Frankly, students care about the dating scene on campus and no one wants to be outnumbered,” says Bari Norman, a former admissions counselor at Barnard College.

That’s the reason that some traditionally male-dominated schools are relishing the influx of women. Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., has a strong engineering program, a discipline in which women have been historically underrepresented. The all-male school went coed in 1970 and has tried to attract women ever since. Now, Lafayette is nearing gender parity, a positive development, says Barry McCarty, head of enrollment services. “Applying students are looking for a balanced environment, and the closer we get to 50-50, the more applications we receive,” says McCarty.

Girls only? As it becomes more difficult for women to gain admittance into many schools, some foresee a new renaissance in unisex education. “Gender equity is steady work,” says Judith Shapiro, president of Barnard College, founded as the sister institution of Columbia University. “Just because women are more represented in higher ed today doesn’t mean that their lot has improved forever,” she says, pointing to the continuing wage gap between lifetime earnings of men and women.

Often lost in the debate is the fact that the gender ratio in higher education has undergone major shifts before. Between 1900 and 1930, men and women were equally represented in higher education, largely because of teaching programs that were dominated by women. (Indeed, in 1926, women made up 59 percent of the students at the University of La Verne.) That parity ended abruptly after World War II, when the GI Bill disproportionately benefited males returning from military service. As the pendulum swings back and women again increasingly outnumber men, Ana Liza Zell, the admissions director at La Verne, says schools may have to change the way they think about themselves. “We advertise a coeducational experience,” she says. “How much does the gender ratio have to shift before it ceases to be that product?” It’s one of the questions admissions officers and students will be grappling with for years to come.

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