Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Gender affirmative action: when women beat men in their own merit-based systems, do women lose yet again?

While before my lifetime, it was not long ago that many of the prestigious private colleges and universities, once men-only, opened their doors to women.  In fact, at my alma mater, Brown University (est. 1767), women were not admitted until Brown incorporated its sister school, Pembroke College (est. 1891), in 1971. Similarly, other Ivy League colleges, such as Columbia (1983), Dartmouth (1972), Harvard (1977), Princeton (1969), and Yale (1969) only began admitting women during the time second-wave feminism really caught wind and the Equal Rights Amendment was pending in many state legislatures. [1] As noted by my colleague in the post Single-sex education: separate but equal?, the choice to turn co-educational has likely done nothing but enriched the academic experiences of students at these elite schools.

Now, it seems women are surpassing men in the merit-based education system men themselves designed. Documented in several New York Times articles from the past few years, women are now earning Bachelor's Degrees at a rate of 3:2 over men. In February 2010, Alex Williams wrote an article entitled "The New Math on Campus," which examined the now approximately 60% female undergraduate population at the University of North Carolina.[2] An American Center for Education study, cited by Williams, notes that of the total enrollment of American undergraduate students in the Fall of 2007, 56.9% is female. More stark are the enrollment figures for graduate students, only 39.7% of which are male. While professional schools remain slightly more male (50.7%), a new question is emerging among administrators of academic institutions around the country: should preference be given to male students in order to maintain an even gender distribution among student bodies?

As Williams notes in his article, many of the women attending college in which 60% of their peers are also female, concerns have been raised about romantic opportunities.
But surrounded by so many other successful women, [women students] often find it harder than expected to find a date on a Friday night.

“My parents think there is something wrong with me because I don’t have a boyfriend, and I don’t hang out with a lot of guys,” said Ms. Andrew, who had a large circle of male friends in high school.

Jayne Dallas, a senior studying advertising who was seated across the table, grumbled that the population of male undergraduates was even smaller when you looked at it as a dating pool. “Out of that 40 percent, there are maybe 20 percent that we would consider, and out of those 20, 10 have girlfriends, so all the girls are fighting over that other 10 percent,” she said.

Needless to say, this puts guys in a position to play the field, and tends to mean that even the ones willing to make a commitment come with storied romantic histories. Rachel Sasser, a senior history major at the table, said that before she and her boyfriend started dating, he had “hooked up with a least five of my friends in my sorority — that I know of.”
But concerns over the growing gender gap in American colleges and universities are far more complex than simply a desire to ensure an even dating field for students. Many admissions officers cite other concerns as driving a new trend in giving men with lower test scores and GPAs than their female counterparts admission in order to balance the student body along gender lines. In March 2006, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, an Admissions Officer at Kenyon College in Ohio, stirred up the debate in an op-ed entitled, To All the Girls I've Rejected. She wrote, "The reality is that because young men are rarer, they're more valued applicants." Men were only 45% of applicants to Kenyon in 2006. And, as it turns out, if fewer than 40% of students are male, the schools reaches what experts call the "tipping point." As Britz wrote,
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 Supreme Court found soft racial affirmative action policies, such as the one administered at the University of Michigan, constitutional on Equal Protection grounds in 2003. But no one has filed a similar challenge on behalf of women in academic admissions. Does the desire to have a "diverse" student body outweigh the new advantages given to male applicants simply because of their sex?

More importantly, even though women earn 3 bachelor's degrees for every 2 that men earn, they still earn less, all other things being equal. According to the World Economic Forum's Sixth Annual Gender Gap Report, women hold fewer than 20% of all decision-making national positions. A comprehensive report on women in the United States conducted by the White House and released in March 2011 found that women are still more likely to suffer critical health problems, such as mobility impairments, arthritis, asthma, and depression. They are more likely to live in poverty, and single-mother families face particularly high poverty rates.

Given the many other areas in which women still suffer a grave disadvantage, can't schools find some other solution to their "tipping point" problems? Do we need an even gender balance at schools to ensure the most diverse and enriching educational experience for our students? Do you think gender balancing--admitting lower achieving male applicants at the expense of rejecting female applicants who have accomplished quite a bit more--is a necessity?  And why is no one trying to encourage male students to accomplish more?

[1] Interestingly, Cornell and U.Penn. admitted women far earlier than the other schools in the Ivy League.
[2] Of all of the institutions surveyed in Williams' article, it should be noted that the Ivy League maintains the most even male:female ratio of all of the nation's post-secondary schools.


KayZee said...

I'm glad that you posted about this topic. I just recently read about this trend on one of my favorite blogs (http://jezebel.com/5847340/women-are-the-real-victims-of-the-so+called-mens-crisis). I think you bring up quite a few thought provoking questions. The one most in line with the article on JEZEBEL is "why isn't anyone encouraging young men to achieve more?"

Author Hugo Schwyzer suggests that the "Men's Crisis" is to blame for unfair admissions practices. If it's true that more young women are qualified for entry into colleges and other institutions of higher learning, then surely they should have their place first. But I agree that men and women should ideally be performing equally, and someone should be holding young men accountable for their recent scholastic decline.

What's more, college is a time for a meeting of the minds. Students should be challenged by professors and classmates alike. With the rise in female college enrollment, what better time for young men to be challenged by the opposite sex?

Rose Sawyer said...

I think that this blog post speaks to what is likely to be on ongoing issue in college admissions. It seems to me that some group (men, women, applicants of a specific ethnicity, you name it) will always have a leg up in the application process. Back in the seventies, it was men. Now, it's women.

The question at issue, then, seems to be the same one that was raised in Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003) -- namely, can and should admissions officers take these sort of factors into account when making admissions decisions? Looking at it strictly from the point of view of precedent, it seems clearly legal to consider gender as a "soft" variable in the admissions process. (Racial classifications are subject to strict scrutiny and they passed that test -- gender has thus far been only subject to intermediate scrutiny, so it would likely pass too.)

This leads to two additional questions: (1) Is gender really being used as a "soft" variable, or is it being used as a deciding factor?, and (2) Is the "compelling state interest in diversity in education" that was used to justify factoring race into admissions decisions equally applicable to gender?

In my mind, the answer to the first question is unclear -- and problematic.

The answer to the second question, though, is a resounding yes. Studies show the benefits of mixed-gender education (see recent posts on same-sex education). Moreover, common sense indicates that in an increasingly integrated world, we all -- men, women, brown, pink, etc. -- are going to have to work together out in the world. If we don't learn how to do this at any early age, what then?