Affirmative action for men, revisited.

by Andrew E. Kurtzman on December 19, 2009

What is the best kept secret in higher education? Women now make up 58% of those enrolled in all two and four-year colleges. On the one hand, this turnaround in opportunity is to be welcomed; our culture is now that much more open and free. On the other, due to entrenched interests and political correctness, universities are extremely reluctant to publicly discuss the (growing) minority status of men. And indeed, administrators and women’s organizations have tended to cheer this turn, without paying sufficient heed its negative implications.

Specifically, universities across the country have been forced to engage in what is essentially “affirmative action” (that is, discriminatory favoritism) for male applicants. Brown’s numbers are telling, as the following charts I have assembled demonstrate.

Brown Gender ApplicantsData sourced from Brown University Office of Institutional Research, “Common Data Set,” from each year referenced on charts; assembled by myself. “Applications differential” is the percentage difference between female and male applicants for a given year. “Admissions differential” is the percentage difference between female and male admitted students for a given year.

The above  charts show a widening gap in the female / male applicant pools; and a relatively flat line in admitted student gender disparity.

Crunching the raw numbers, I have calculated a mere 12% correlation between year-to-year applicant gender disparity (“applications differential %”), and year-to-year admitted student disparity (“admissions differential %”). (If interested in raw data, please email me.)

This, my friends, is a lot of gender engineering.

Further,  given that the admissions office knows something about who is likely to enroll if admitted, the next statistic is even more telling: year-to-year applicant gender disparity, and year-to-year ENROLLED student disparity (not pictured), demonstrate an even-worse 10% correlation.

Once-upon-a-time, the Spectator approached Dean of Admission James Miller to ask about the gap in male / female applicants. Dr. Miller argued that no gender bias was exhibited in admissions standards. Rather, he claimed, Brown’s interest in expanding its sciences programs, coupled with the dearth of female science applicants, explained the apparent bias.

While it is impossible to substantiate Dr. Miller’s argument without additional data (as Jason Carr noted in the original Spectator article), these new charts demonstrate that the problem is worsening. Are we to believe that, despite millions of dollars spent on a concerted efforts to recruit female students, a female advisory program considered to be a model for higher education, and construction of dramatically improved facilities, the significantly larger female applicant pool now contains even fewer women (as an absolute number, not as a percentage) interested in the sciences? This is the implication of Miller’s logic, which is clearly implausible – such is the size of the growing admissions disparity.

To be fair, preferential admissions standards are not necessarily a bad institutional decision in certain circumstances: there is, perhaps, a reasonable argument to be made for “gender balance” in college admissions. That is to say, if a college becomes imbalanced, for example, to 65% male or 65% female, it may well lose many of its best potential students to other, more balanced universities. Such logic has led engineering schools, such as MIT and CalTech, to actively recruit women. MIT is now 50% female, and CalTech is now nearly 40%.

Whether such policies are appropriate at any particular time is, of course, an open business question, and is one to be answered by a given school’s board of directors. The trade-off for gender bias in admissions, as with any sort of bias (e.g., racial), is the resulting breach of meritocracy: selection based on standards other than applicant quality. Depending on one’s political outlook, this is either inherently wrong, or a necessary evil. In no one’s ideal world would race or sex be a consideration in applications.

Brown is not an isolated case. Such is the extent of the problem that, according to Inside Higher Ed magazine, as of November the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has formally  ”started an inquiry into the extent to which liberal arts colleges discriminate against female applicants in an attempt to minimize gender imbalances in the student body.”

Dishonesty about the existence of this problem cannot but compound it. As we have established, there are very legitimate arguments against this sort of admissions bias. And regardless, as the problem is clearly worsening, it is in everyone’s interest to discuss it openly. Female students and faculty should pat themselves on the back for a job-well-done in overcoming significant obstacles; but the pendulum must now move back toward the center.

One potential solution is to revisit provisions of the 1972 “Title IX” legislation that restricts university spending on male sports programs. Some universities are already increasing their sports-spending, and even creating entire football programs, in order to attract male applicants. There are, in all likelihood, countless creative ways to address the problem, and reduce the necessity of admissions bias for men. But ideas require open and active discourse to develop. And until we overcome fear and political correctness, this will not be possible.

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