NPR reports that the US Commission on Civil Rights is investigating whether colleges are violating Title IX by favoring male applicants. But is such favoritism necessary to keep colleges from becoming "overwhelmingly female?"
Law professor Gail Heriot says, "I had seen articles that suggested that some colleges and universities were discriminating in favor of men and against women in their admissions processes." She and her fellow members of the Commission plan to subpoena the admissions records and policies of 12 or more institutions to determine if such discrimination is occurring. Some, however, think there's no need. Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions at Kenyon College, says, "Is there evidence of this? Who has it? Where is it?"
As NPR's Claudio Sanchez points out, one of the people who has such evidence is Delahunty herself. In a 2006 New York Times op-ed, she wrote, "The fat acceptance envelope is simply more elusive for today's accomplished young women." She went on to describe an impressive female Kenyon applicant whose admission was still up for debate. She explained,
Had she been a male applicant, there would have been little, if any, hesitation to admit. The reality is that because young men are rarer, they're more valued applicants.
Here Delahunty seems to be outright confessing that Kenyon gives male applicants an edge. Why? She says,
At those colleges that have reached what the experts call a "tipping point," where 60 percent or more of their enrolled students are female, you'll hear a hint of desperation in the voices of admissions officers.
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.
So favoring men is at least partly a numbers game. But Tom Mortenson of the Pell Institute says gender-imbalanced colleges are also bad for education. He tells Sanchez,
The people who work on these campuses say that boys frankly are not at their best where they are outnumbered two to one by girls. It's probably not a healthy situation for either gender.
It's tempting to suggest that boys who "aren't at their best" with too many chicks around might like to call the wahmbulance, or just cool their heels and wait for the day when they make more money than women for doing the same job. But given the recent focus on men's college woes (the president of the University of Alberta drew fire last week for declaring herself an "advocate" for underrepresented white men), it's worth examining whether or not gender "balance" is a good thing to strive for. It may not be particularly high-minded, but I can understand why straight women might balk at attending a college where they greatly outnumber men — a highly skewed dating pool can lead to some unpleasant social dynamics, not to mention reduced options. Then again, there's no reason women can't date outside their colleges, and the idea that a post-secondary education should also provide mating opportunities may be an outdated and damaging one. Maybe it's time we stopped thinking of college as a place of sexual awakening, and simply focused on learning.
So do students learn better in a mixed-gender setting? In primary and secondary school, there's some evidence that single-gender education has benefits, and many who attended women's colleges swear by the experience. On the other hand, there is something to be said for an educational experience that mimics the real world — but gender aside, colleges may be moving farther and farther from this goal.
Ultimately, the gender makeup of selective colleges may be a moot point. As college costs rise and real income falls, the "traditional" college experience is becoming out of reach for more and more students. Probably more important than the gender balance of a place like Kenyon is the growing gap between those who can afford Kenyon and those who can't. While some colleges had begun beefing up their financial aid prior to the recession, many are now in dire straits and forced to relinquish need-blind admissions. It's worth examining whether female applicants are suffering discrimination, and the underlying reasons for boys' educational problems deserve study as well. But the biggest problem facing America in the coming years isn't going to be about who gets into what top college. It'll be about who never had the money or support to apply in the first place, and couldn't attend even if they did get in. And unfortunately, this underrepresented group is growing.
Related: To All The Girls I've Rejected [NYT]