Sunday, March 26, 2006

Suffering from Too Much Gender Balance

I found this op-ed,"To All the Girls I've Rejected" , by an admissions counselor at Kenyon college to be utterly depressing. Most of the op-eds about the gender imbalance in higher education has focused on how "at risk" our young boys are because of the feminization of higher education. This op-ed, however, takes a refreshing look at another, equally (if not more) concerning unintended consequence of the higher numbers of women applying to college: that the standards for admission are much higher and more competitive than they are for male applicants.

Last week, the 10 officers at my college sat around a table, 12 hours every day, deliberating the applications of hundreds of talented young men and women. While gulping down coffee and poring over statistics, we heard about a young woman from Kentucky we were not yet ready to admit outright. She was the leader/president/editor/captain/lead actress in every activity in her school. She had taken six advanced placement courses and had been selected for a prestigious state leadership program. In her free time, this whirlwind of achievement had accumulated more than 300 hours of community service in four different organizations.

Few of us sitting around the table were as talented and as directed at age 17 as this young woman. Unfortunately, her test scores and grade point average placed her in the middle of our pool. We had to have a debate before we decided to swallow the middling scores and write "admit" next to her name.

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. Today, two-thirds of colleges and universities report that they get more female than male applicants, and more than 56 percent of undergraduates nationwide are women. Demographers predict that by 2009, only 42 percent of all baccalaureate degrees awarded in the United States will be given to men.

We have told today's young women that the world is their oyster; the problem is, so many of them believed us that the standards for admission to today's most selective colleges are stiffer for women than men. How's that for an unintended consequence of the women's liberation movement?

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

What are the consequences of young men discovering that even if they do less, they have more options? And what messages are we sending young women that they must, nearly 25 years after the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, be even more accomplished than men to gain admission to the nation's top colleges? These are questions that admissions officers like me grapple with.

In the meantime, I'm sending out waitlist and rejection letters for nearly 3,000 students. Unfortunately, a majority of them will be female, young women just like my daughter. I will linger over letters, remembering individual students I've met, essays I loved, accomplishments I've admired. I know all too well that parents will ache when their talented daughters read the letters and will feel a bolt of anger at the college admissions officers who didn't recognize how special their daughters are.

While the right-wing loves to pummel the "liberals" for lowering their standards (what they take to be Affirmative Action) in order to be more "inclusive," it appears that the group that is really the beneficiary of lower standards in admission policies is young men. I have been told this countless times by my own friends who work in admissions.

I also learned a few weeks ago that one way in which we are able to avoid lowering our standards too much by choosing unqualified male applicants is by keeping our "management program." It appears, at least according to one theory, that many qualified male applicants won't apply to liberal arts colleges without a business degree. Hence, because we have a business degree at our college we get slightly more qualified men than we otherwise would, allowing us to achieve greater gender parity, without lowering the standards for admitting male applicants.

I find this question--" What are the consequences of young men discovering that even if they do less, they have more options?"--to be the most bittersweet one asked in the course of this op-ed. While many wingnuts suggest that women and minorities get jobs and into college simply because they are women and minorities, it appears that the opposite is true. Men now get into college because they are men. Our unquestioned assumption that gender imbalance is an unthinkable social disaster on college campuses has made them valuable, just because of their XY chromosomes. What irony. Before the feminist movement, women had to work three times as hard as men to have any hope of getting into one of the few slots alotted to women applicants. Now, after the feminist movement, women have to work three times as hard to get the positions that they deserve because they have to compete with less qualified men who are sought after, just because they are men. Women are punished for their success.

What I find fascinating is that for many years, college admissions didn't feel the need for gender balance. Many colleges simply did not allow women in. But now that we have dismantled many of those archaic and hopelessly sexist institutional rules, women are suffering from a new rule: gender balance.