A Growing Gender Gap Tests College Admissions
When admissions officers for Santa Clara University recruit new freshmen, they do their best to reach the kind of students they’d like to see more of on the Silicon Valley campus: boys.
“We make a special pitch to them to talk about the benefits of Santa Clara, as we do for other underrepresented groups,” Charles Nolan, Santa Clara’s vice provost for admissions, said of the school’s efforts to boost male applicants.
It’s a startling development to anyone who remembers that Santa Clara was all male until 1960. But the Jesuit-run school reflects an important transformation of American college life.
Among the 4,550 undergraduates at Santa Clara, 57% are female. That matches the percentage of U.S. bachelor’s degrees now awarded to women, a demographic shift that has accelerated since women across the country began to attend college at a higher rate than men about a decade ago.
Today, many colleges, particularly selective residential schools, face a dilemma unthinkable a generation ago.
To place well in influential college rankings, those schools must enroll as many top high school students as they can -- and most of those students are female. Administrators are watching closely for the “tipping point” at which schools become unappealing to both men and women. They fear that lopsided male-female ratios will hurt the social life and diverse classrooms they use as selling points.
Despite employing the same tactics used for years to lure ethnic minority students, few colleges say they give admissions preferences to boys. But high school counselors and admissions experts say they believe it is happening.
“At some schools, it’s definitely a strategic advantage” to be male, said Chuck Hughes, a former Harvard admissions officer who is now a private admissions counselor and author of “What it Really Takes to Get into the Ivy League and Other Highly Selective Colleges.”
Vincent Garcia, a college counselor at the Los Angeles prep school Campbell Hall, said liberal arts colleges, especially, can be “more forgiving of the occasional B or even a C” from a boy. “Sometimes the expectation is a little bit less” than for girls, he said.
At Santa Clara, admission standards have risen along with female enrollment, and officials say those have not eased for boys. But for the last two years, the college has targeted special mailings to high school boys. Current students also telephone every accepted male to encourage him to attend, something that is not done for every girl.
So far, Santa Clara’s change into a female-majority campus has been more evolution than revolution.
Football was dropped in 1993, but now thousands of students instead fill the stadium to cheer the women’s soccer team. Women routinely hold most of the campus leadership positions. And when the student union was remodeled recently, the number of men’s toilets -- which had been more than double those for women -- was cut to make space for more women’s stalls.
If students complain about the gender mix, it is usually with a sense of humor. “My friends tell me I should switch my major to engineering if I want a boyfriend,” joked student government president and religious studies major Annie Selak, citing one of the few mostly male sectors on campus.
Pepperdine University is another school carefully watching its enrollment. Admissions Director Michael Truschke said the Malibu campus does consider an applicant’s sex, but any boost for boys is slight. “It’s on the radar, but it’s not the driving force in what will get an applicant over the hump,” he said. For this year’s freshman class, 31% of male applicants were accepted, compared with 25% of women who applied.
Truschke said the school does not make special recruiting efforts for males, but that could change if the female enrollment climbs beyond the current 59%. “We’re right on the cusp. If it got to be above 60-40 we’d have to ask ourselves if we need to be more intentional or change recruiting strategies,” he said.
Such recruiting is complicated because girls outperform boys in high school. High school boys do score slightly higher on the SAT but more girls have A averages, rank in the top 10% of their class and take more academic courses than boys, according to the College Board.
Researchers are divided about the causes and extent of the college gender gap.
Some say the gap is limited to lower-income students and minorities, with girls from those populations more likely to attend college and boys more likely to go directly to work or the military. Affluent white males are at least as likely to attend college as their female counterparts, according to those experts. Others say the gap crosses race and class lines.
Whatever the case, the highly selective colleges attracting affluent students are also getting more -- and academically stronger -- applications from women than men.
Mark Hatch, dean of admissions at Colorado College, said his school admits a higher percentage of female applicants because “in some ways they’re stronger, period.” The Colorado Springs liberal arts college maintains a 53% female enrollment. “We could get to 50-50,” Hatch said, but doing so would require easing admissions standards for boys to a point “that would make us uncomfortable.”
A former counselor at two Los Angeles high schools, Hatch said that in college admissions “the developmental lag rears its ugly head.” High school boys “are more likely to be late bloomers,” sometimes not hitting their academic stride until their junior year, he explained. That, Hatch said, can hurt boys in class rank and cumulative grade point average.
Campuses with an even male-female ratio are now the exception rather than the rule. The colleges with very abundant and strong male applicant pools tend to emphasize engineering, science and business or be such marquee schools as Stanford and most Ivy League colleges.
But many of the finest liberal arts colleges and top national universities like Georgetown, Boston University, Emory, Brown, Tulane, Vanderbilt and Northwestern enroll more women than men.
The same is true for all UC campuses, except Irvine, and Cal State campuses except for the two polytechnics and the California Maritime Academy. The stronger credentials of the female applicant pool are apparent at California public universities, which are all barred by law from considering sex or race in admissions. Even at the highly sought UC Berkeley, 26% of female freshman applicants were admitted in 2003, compared with 22% of males.
New York University, which has no engineering school or big-time sports, exemplifies the phenomenon. NYU is now among the most sought-after schools in the country, with more than 34,000 applicants annually -- 60% female, the same percentage that make up its undergraduate enrollment.
But as academic standards have climbed, the 60-40 ratio also reflects NYU’s refusal to lower admissions standards for males, said Matthew Santirocco, NYU’s dean of arts and sciences. “We are not engaged in social engineering; we just let the best person win.”
Nevertheless, Santirocco said he was watching closely for any negative effects. “When I hear students have trouble meeting friends, that the classroom is no longer diverse, that’s when [policies] could change,” he said. At 60% women, those problems haven’t come up, “but if it turned to 80-20 it could be a different matter.”
Santirocco suspects some colleges are giving an edge to boys. “I have no proof of this, but given the demographics, if you have a class come in at 50-50 it seems to me many places may well be taking gender into account,” he said.
The College of William and Mary in Virginia raised its freshman male enrollment to 49%, up from about 45% recently. Getting there wasn’t easy since more than twice as many women as men apply to the highly selective public university, the second-oldest school in the United States after Harvard.
Henry Broaddus, William and Mary’s director of admissions, said just as the 5,700-student Williamsburg, Va., school seeks “musicians, artists, athletes as well as a racially diverse group of students.... We are concerned that we have roughly equal numbers of men and women.”
Broaddus said the school’s representatives talk up the college’s strengths in science and sports. Recruiters also point out male alumni like Green Bay Packer all-pro safety Darren Sharper and television talk show host Jon Stewart.
Some of the efforts aim at a “visceral level,” Broaddus said, such as pictures of the rugby team added to the school’s admissions brochure. One photo shows a hulking, mud-covered player on his knees in a puddle, with this caption: “Members of the men’s rugby team take their jobs seriously, and the more mud, the better.”
But an applicant’s sex is “one of many factors we take into account in the interest of bringing in a diverse class,” Broaddus said. For this year’s freshmen class, 30% of male applicants were admitted, compared with 22% of female applicants.
Even colleges with equal numbers of men and women are vigilant. Pomona College Admissions Director Bruce Poch said that a few years ago he noticed every student pictured in a promotional calendar about to be sent to high schools was a woman. Poch nixed the mailing, saying it would send a distorted picture of the school, which has a 50-50 gender split.
Following Supreme Court rulings striking down quotas and numerical point systems used in race-based affirmative action programs, colleges wishing to address gender imbalances must do so delicately.
The University of Georgia in 1999 dropped a system in which some male applicants received bonus points in the numerical formula it used to admit students. The school did so after a lawsuit by a female applicant.
Terrence J. Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, the conservative Washington public interest law firm that challenged the University of Michigan’s racial affirmative action programs before the U.S. Supreme Court, said that decision and others allow colleges to give some preference to male applicants as long as gender doesn’t carry so much weight that it creates a double-standard.
The female-heavy graduating classes are making their mark farther up the chain. Women outnumbered men among medical school applicants for the second consecutive year, and more women than men now earn doctorates.
Sociologists may ponder the effect of such shifts, but today’s students seem comfortable living it.
Men especially enjoy the new social math. At midday on the Santa Clara University student union patio, juniors Patrick Semansky, 20, and Richard Bersamina, 20, who were classmates at an all-boys high school, said they were very aware of the gender imbalance when shopping for colleges.
Santa Clara’s female majority “definitely wasn’t discouraging. This is an attractive place,” Semansky said mischievously, glancing at women milling about.
“This is definitely an attractive place,” Bersamina agreed, smiling.
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Boys and Girls
Women now make up a majority of college students, a trend expected to continue as high school girls outperform boys in the classroom.
National college enrollment
(two- and four-year colleges)
U.S. high school students who...
Ranked in top 10% of class
Maintained an A average
Took four years off:
Males: 46%; Females: 54%
Males: 45%; Females: 55%
Males: 39%; Females: 61%
Undergraduate enrollment at some California schools
Cal State LA
Males: 37%; Females: 63%
Males: 44%; Females: 56%
Males: 46%; Females: 54%
Males: 50%; Females: 50%
Males: 67%; Females: 33%
Mean SAT scores
Although U.S. high school girls score lower than boys on the SAT, they earn better grades in school and take more college-prep courses.
Males: 512; Females: 504
Males: 537; Females: 501
Sources: U.S. Department of Education; College Board; college websites. Graphics reporting by Peter Hong