Grappling With the Gender Disparity Issue
With women now making up more than half of undergraduate student populations,colleges are looking for a few good men
By Ernest Holsendolph
The young lady seeking admission to Ohio’s Kenyon College was a student leader, had taken advanced placement classes in high school, had earned entry into a prestigious Kentucky leadership program and still managed to accumulate more than 300 hours of community service in four different organizations. The only problem — she wasn’t the right sex.
“Had she been a male applicant, there would have been little, if any, hesitation to admit her,” wrote Kenyon dean of admissions Jennifer Delahunty Britz in an op-ed piece for The New York Times in March. “The reality is that because young men are rarer, they’re more valued applicants.” The article was in effect a mea culpa to highly qualified female applicants who miss the cut as selective schools try their best to fashion a balanced freshman class.
The simple fact at the majority of colleges and universities nationwide is that more women are applying than men. Nationally, 56 percent of undergraduates are female. In the minds of many higher education officials, the gender imbalance could damage the marketability of colleges, especially for small, highly competitive liberal arts colleges like Kenyon.
Part of the fear is that colleges could become labeled as “girls schools,” prompting male students to look elsewhere. Also, students may prefer to attend schools where they’ll have more opportunities to interact with the opposite sex. This “dance partner” issue, officials say, is serious business.
Roderick J. Harrison, a demographer with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, says the gender inequity in college enrollment has serious consequences.
“Longer term, it means that in a period when women and African-Americans should expect expanding job opportunities, Black men will simply not be prepared to take advantage of them,” Harrison says, adding that men are more likely than women to hold the misguided notion that they can find good employment without a college education.
But colleges’ response to the situation could be just as precarious. On the face of the issue, it would appear that public colleges could be in legal trouble if women were found to be the subject of discrimination, but the legal ramifications are unclear. Most officials believe that private colleges like Kenyon are free to select their student enrollments as they see fit.
While some colleges are grappling with the gender issue in the admissions office, others are addressing it in other ways, if only indirectly.
Benedict College, in South Carolina, recently built an athletic stadium and has resumed a football program, in part, says Benedict President David Swinton, to attract the interest of more male students.
Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, whose student body is 63 percent female, has pursued a similar course of action, authorizing a football team and a marching band to “enhance the quality and vitality of student life on campus.” When asked if the new moves were aimed at attracting more male students, Drexel Ball, a school spokesman said: “Certainly, indirectly … but we prefer to think of it as making the school more desirable to students.”
The disparity becomes more acute when race is factored into the equation. At historically Black Howard University, male enrollment has dipped to 35 percent. Howard and other higher education institutions are examining a range of options to address the problems of Black male matriculation.
“We are looking at the problem as comprehensively as we can, including examining college preparation carefully,” says Dr. Alvin Thornton, associate provost at Howard. Among the measures being taken are more peer mentoring efforts between upper classmen and younger male students.
An irony is that for much of the last 20 to 30 years, women have been the focus of this sort of program, especially in the STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and math. But despite the decades of effort, there has been minimal progress on that front.
Dr. Sue V. Rosser, dean of the Ivan Allen Liberal Arts College at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where male applicants outnumbered women 6,507 to 2,713 last year, says men are generally “more readily attracted to most science and engineering courses of study.”
Meanwhile, gender preferences of various kinds are coming under the
legal microscope. Diane Schachterle, spokeswoman for the American Civil Rights Institute, says her organization is as concerned about gender preferences as it is about minority preferences in college admissions.
“If women are now outnumbering men in college applications and admissions, this may be a result of bad policies favoring women in recent years, and we are reminded, be careful what you wish for,” Schachterle says.
Legal challenges to gender-based admissions are already moving their way through the courts. For example, the New York Civil Rights Coalition recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights challenging the legality of Black male retention programs in the City University of New York system. As the demographics continue to shift in colleges and universities, more lawsuits are almost certain to follow.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com