clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Discrimination against women is a real problem in college admissions

Study hard, girls, but you might lose your college spot to a boy who didn't study as much.
Study hard, girls, but you might lose your college spot to a boy who didn't study as much.
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Two generations ago, women were in the minority in higher education. Now they're dominating it.

In 1960, women earned 35 percent of all bachelor's degrees. They crossed the 50 percent mark in the late 1970s and just kept going.

Women now make up 59 percent of all college students. In 2011, they earned 62 percent of all associate degrees, 57 percent of all bachelor's degrees, and 60 percent of all master's degrees. They now even earn the majority of doctorates — the last bastion of male domination in higher education.

Women college degrees chart

Women are so dominant, in fact, that some colleges — particularly private colleges — overtly or covertly give men a boost in the admissions process. If you're hoping to be admitted to a prestigious private college that doesn't specialize in engineering, it helps to be male.

Discrimination against women is an open secret at some private colleges

Evidence has mounted in recent years: at some colleges, although not all, men can get in with less impressive credentials. A push for gender balance on campus means accomplished young women end up competing with each other rather than crowding out less accomplished young men.

About 25 percent of admissions directors surveyed by Inside Higher Ed in 2014 said colleges should admit men with lower grades and test scores than other applicants to create a gender balance.

A 2005 study of 13 liberal arts colleges found that when women made up a majority of the application pool, admissions officers went easier on men.

And last year, the Washington Post analyzed admissions data for 128 colleges and universities with admissions rates under 35 percent. They found that 64 of them admitted men at a higher rate than women.

It's rare, but some admissions directors or college presidents publicly admit that they're harder on women applicants because they want a gender balance. In 2007, Henry Broaddus, the dean of admissions at the College of William and Mary, said admitting men was important because it's "the College of William and Mary, not the College of Mary and Mary." The comment went viral, and although Broaddus says he regrets the phrasing, he stands by the underlying idea: colleges "that market themselves as coed, and believe that the pedagogical experiences they provide rely in part on a coed student body, have a legitimate interest in enrolling a class that is not disproportionately male or female," he wrote in the Washington Post.

In 2006, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, then the dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times headlined "To All the Girls I've Rejected." In the opaque world of college admissions, Britz's op-ed laid out the situation candidly: talented female applicants at Kenyon were a dime a dozen, and highly qualified male applicants were rarer. It was simply harder to get in as a young woman than a young man.

"The elephant that looms large in the middle of the room is the importance of gender balance," Britz wrote. "Should it trump the qualifications of talented young female applicants?"

The US Commission on Civil Rights began an investigation in 2009 into whether colleges favored men at the expense of women, but the inquiry never went anywhere, in part due to problems getting accurate data.

How many women is too many women?

women college students


Gender preferences in college admissions are frequently described as affirmative action for men. But that's not really accurate — at least not the way affirmative action works for other groups. What colleges really have is a quota system for women.

The Supreme Court allows affirmative action based on race to achieve a critical mass of students of color at a university. The idea is that a college should be diverse enough that students experience the diversity of thoughts and life experiences within different races as well as among them. It's meant to avoid a situation where students of color are so rare that they become tokens who must represent an entire race or ethnicity on their own.

Whether you find that a convincing rationale for admissions preferences or not, it's hard to argue that colleges today lack a critical mass of men. Men might be underrepresented in college relative to their numbers in society as a whole, but they're hardly in danger of becoming isolated tokens.

So colleges aren't restricting women's opportunities to achieve critical mass with an underrepresented group. They're just putting a ceiling on the number of women they admit.

Sometimes this is done through giving less qualified male applicants a boost. Eleven percent of admissions directors in the Inside Higher Ed survey said they admit male students with lower grades and test scores than other applicants because they want a gender balance.

In other cases, colleges have policies that might not intend to disadvantage women but have the same effect — weighing SAT scores as more important than high school grades, for example. (Girls get better grades in high school, but boys still outscore girls on the SAT. High school grades predict college grades better than SAT scores, although the best predictor is still the two factors combined.)

And sometimes colleges try to make themselves more attractive to men: adding a Division III football team is a strategy some small colleges are embracing. It boosts enrollment and tuition revenue in general, and it boosts male enrollment in particular.

The rationale isn't that male applicants need a leg up because they're at some kind of disadvantage. It's much simpler. Colleges don't want too many women on campus, because they're afraid a college that's too female will struggle to attract both women and men.

"Once you become decidedly female in enrollment, fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive," Britz wrote.

This mindset shows up best in a 2010 article in the New York Times focused on the University of North Carolina, where 58 percent of students are women; the women quoted bemoaned their ability to get a date given the lopsided ratio, and the male reporter described UNC as among colleges that "at times feel eerily like women's colleges." (Women's colleges with a very healthy population of men, apparently.)

But it's not clear that college students value a 50/50 gender split as much administrators assume they do. Nor do we know if women students would prefer to be rejected at the admissions stage rather than attend a college where it's slightly more difficult to find a boyfriend. American University is 61 percent women, and the gender ratio doesn't appear to be driving applicants away. It's gotten more selective, not less, in the past decade.

A 50-50 gender ratio at colleges might really be a worthwhile societal goal. But the way colleges practice admissions now, it looks a lot more like a marketing ploy based on outdated stereotypes.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.