Girls face higher bar at certain colleges

When the admissions decisions for schools in the Ivy League were released on the Thursday before winter break, Chloe Searcy ’07 was anxious to hear from her first choice, Brown University.

Searcy, the lead in the school musical and an advanced physics student, had applied early to Brown and been deferred into the regular pool last December. She was upset to find out she had been denied admission, but she later found out that three of her close male friends had been accepted, including her boyfriend, although he had been admitted during the early round.

Searcy, who plans to attend Yale next year, is not alone. Of all the students who applied to Brown from Harvard-Westlake, Searcy has only heard of one girl who was admitted amid many boys.

“I feel okay about it because I don’t feel like they don’t want girls,” she said. “Girls are just an overrepresented applicant pool. If they accepted girls and boys in the ratio that they applied, it would be a very unbalanced student body.”

Since the 1970s, the number of women at college has grown so dramatically that they now make up 54 percent of college students between 18 and 24, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As female enrollment at colleges and universities has zoomed past male enrollment nationwide, male applicants have become somewhat more prized at certain colleges, which may give some men an easier time in the admissions cycle, especially with highly selective schools for which gender balance is an institutional goal.

“Logic would say that if there are more women applying, it’s harder for them,” Dean Jason Honsel said. “Anecdotally, it felt that way early decision.”

Though the absolute number of men attending college has continued to grow over the past quarter century, the percentage of young men at college has only increased modestly while the percentage of women has nearly doubled, forcing colleges to consider gender in trying to create a balanced, well-rounded freshman class.

“Discrimination is kind of a strong word,” Dean Vanna Cairns said. “It’s not sexist, it’s supply and demand.”

Among certain minorities, the gender imbalance is more pronounced, which can lead to an even bigger advantage for boys, Honsel said. Only 28 percent of black men between 18 and 24 attend college nationwide, compared with 37 percent for black women.

Enrollment rates for men and women also vary by region and income level. The gap is highest in the south, though that may reflect the large number of blacks, according to a study by the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington study group.

Gender differences are also more pronounced among low-income families. For the highest income families, the gap between female and male enrollment is nonexistent or even negative, according to a report by the American Council on Education last year.

Dickinson College, a private four-year liberal arts school in Pennsylvania to which Harvard-Westlake sends only one student every two or three years, has recently made it a priority to bring the gender ratio on campus close to 45 boys for every 55 girls, the national average for liberal arts colleges.

In 1999, the gender ratio was 36/64. Some administrators worried about attracting qualified applicants, since excellent students of both genders can tend to avoid schools with a major gender skew in favor of women, Robert Massa said, vice president for enrollment and college relations.

To attract more men, the school started changing its admissions publications to feature male leaders, athletics, and stories about majors in business and science. Schools with strong programs in physics, economics, computer science and business tend to attract more men, Massa said.
“Of course, once males applied in greater numbers, we had to admit them in order to get them to enroll,” he said.

Massa has had to respond to criticism that colleges like Dickinson practice affirmative action for men.
“In general, we are not admitting men who are less qualified than women, because they have higher SATs and slightly lower grades but they are still highly qualified,” he said. He also points out that the admissions rate for men is actually slightly lower than the admissions rate for women.

What’s true for Dickinson also holds for larger universities, including the Ivy League.

Last year, Harvard admitted a freshman class that was 52 percent female, said William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions.

But while Harvard typically admits students in proportion to their applications, certain colleges are willing to admit a higher percentage of their male applicants to inch closer to gender parity on campus. In 2006, men made up just under 40 percent of the applicant pool to Brown, but 47 percent of those accepted were male.

At certain schools, the number of women have grown so much that they nearly outnumber the men 2 to 1. American University in Washington, D.C. is 62 percent women, a higher percentage of female students than at Vassar, a formerly all-girls school.

American has no football team and no engineering department, and a multitude of clubs directed at women, such as Women’s’ Initiative and Women in Politics, though the two undergraduates from Harvard-Westlake are both men.

Pat Whitman ’05, a sophomore at American, says the gender balance didn’t factor into his decision to attend, though he joined a fraternity this year after having trouble finding male friends.

“Joining Greek life allowed me to see a lot more of the male population, so it’s not really as big of an issue as it was during my freshman year,” he said.

Whitman says he now only notices the greater number of women in class, although the imbalance does impact the dating scene.

“There are usually a whole bunch of males that are willing to go out with the females on campus, because there are so many of them looking for dates,” he said.

Depending on the school, some women can actually have an easier time getting in. Colleges and universities with an emphasis on science or engineering often have trouble getting girls to attend, so they often accept a higher percentage of female applicants. At the Massachussets Institute of Technology, a higher admit rate for girls helps them maintain their 55/45 boy/girl ratio. Of the three Harvard-Westlake students admitted to MIT this year, two are female.

Whatever the gender bias, the specific advantage boys or girls at Harvard-Westlake may receive in applying to colleges is something that’s difficult to calculate, Dean Jim Patterson said.

“All the data that we have is based on GPA and SAT scores alone, not GPA, SAT scores and gender,” he said.

The dean’s office began adding a gender column to the statistics they keep on all college applications sent in a given year in 2006, although it will be a while before the deans “crunch the numbers” to gauge the statistical effects of gender on college admissions, Dean Mike Bird said.

Nevertheless, school officials tend to view the current gender dynamic as the new reality.

“We do what we can by preparing kids as well as we can, and fortunately, while absolute numbers in our own little universe may mirror national trends…the results do not,” President Thomas C. Hudnut said. “Look at the numbers of our graduating class of 2007 that are going to remarkable places.”