Admissions officers walk a fine line in gender-balancing act

Like a lot of high-achievers, Jennifer Johnson thought she knew how college admissions worked. Step 1: Take tough classes, get good grades and test scores in high school. Step 2: Get into a top college.

Ms. Johnson did the first step well. But soon after she applied in 1998 to the University of Georgia at Athens, the flagship campus, Johnson discovered she was wrong about Step 2: it mattered to the school that she was not a man.

If Johnson had been a young "Mr. Johnson," the university would have added .25 to a "Total Student Index" score. She also would have gotten points if she had been a racial or ethnic minority. It was enough to tip the balance against her, her lawyers say. Johnson was rejected.

In response, she filed a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing the university of gender bias in its admissions process. The August 1999 suit also alleged race bias.

"College admission should be based on academics," Johnson says. "I just kept wondering, Why should a boy get any extra help getting in?"

The reason was fairly simple: The university had 45 percent men on campus, and just 42 percent of first-time freshman applicants have been male in recent years.

"We just wanted to stop the trend before it became something bad," a high-ranking administrator told the Monitor, asking not to be named because the race portion of the case is on appeal.

But a district court judge said their method - which the school dropped after the suit was filed - was illegal. "The desire to 'help out' men who are not earning baccalaureate degrees in the same numbers as women ... is far from persuasive," Judge B. Avant Edenfield wrote last year.

Yet around the United States, many colleges and universities are practicing "affirmative action for men," legal experts and others say. The practices may be more subtle than were Georgia's, making it harder to charge that they are illegal.

Even if this issue is not about to parallel the recent wave of court challenges to racial affirmative action, it is nonetheless sparking debate in higher education. The theme rings familiar: Does concern over campus demographics justify tweaking admissions criteria to admit more men - if it means shutting out better-qualified women?

It might seem that common sense dictates a significant role for gender in the selection process, if a school is to fulfill its coeducational mission. Too much attention to the "bottom line" of gender balance, however, could result in admitting men who aren't as academically prepared as they should be - and who may end up disrupting a class instead of contributing to it.

"It's wrong to put your thumb on the scale for a male applicant when you've got a better-qualified female, but I know the colleges are doing it because they've told me," says Thomas Mortenson, a policy analyst at the Center for the Study of Opportunity and Higher Education in Washington.

A Midwestern college president who asked not to be named agreed, saying that some colleges he knows well admit men at higher rates even though "women are usually the stronger candidates."

Consistently higher admissions for men

To explore this issue, the Monitor analyzed admissions data from 1,006 coed, four-year colleges and universities. At a substantial minority of schools, the percentage of male applicants admitted has been consistently higher than the percentage of

female applicants admitted. At many of these, men are a minority on campus and in the applicant pool.

These facts alone cannot be interpreted to mean that a school is practicing "affirmative action" for men. But it does provide a reasonable basis to inquire whether policy or other factors are driving male admissions rates higher.

The Monitor followed up its look at the data by interviewing students, faculty, and staff about the role of gender in admissions and on campus.

In addition to documenting the scope of the "gender gap" (see page 15), the Monitor identified 259 schools that admitted men at higher rates than women for at least one of the three years examined (the academic years starting in 1997, '98, and '99).

Admissions rates often vary from year to year. But at some institutions, men do consistently better in the admissions process. Fifty colleges and universities had a record of admitting men at higher rates than women at least three years in a row. All but eight of these had more female than male first-time freshman applicants - a possible motivator for admitting men at higher rates, analysts say.

Some schools were clearly out of step with their peers. For example, among 124 private colleges and universities the Monitor designated as "selective" (admitting less than 50 percent of their applicants overall), just 15 admitted men at higher rates than women for three consecutive years. These included such schools as Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.; Brown University in Providence, R.I.; Emory University in Atlanta; and several former women's colleges, including Vassar, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Never wait for the guy to call

Like a lot of colleges and universities across the country, Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, is looking for more than a few good men. In 1999-2000, 42 percent of 1,256 undergraduates were men. It is one of the 50 schools that stood out for admitting men at higher rates.

The university has enough guys to field one of the best college baseball teams in the country. But it's difficult to balance out the voices in the campus chorale, which currently includes 24 women and 18 men. In some classes, women outnumber men by 7 to 1. At parties, women scrounge for dance partners.

Admissions officers can't help but hear the echo of students' gripes. The result is a strong push to get more men on campus.

"If we have a male applicant who has not interviewed, we will be more aggressive on interviewing that student, somehow," says John Lind, director of admissions. "If a woman is in the same situation, we may not aggressively pursue her if she has not pursued us first herself. Some may say that's not nice, but we have to pursue the objectives of the institution."

The gender gap has not worsened at Southwestern in recent years, in part because of this aggressive recruitment of men and the school's pattern of admitting them at higher rates than women. For 1999-2000, Southwestern admitted 71 percent of male applicants, compared with 63 percent of female applicants. Percentages vary year to year, but have been higher for men for the last five years, Mr. Lind acknowledges.

Even if women are admitted at lower rates, far more women apply and are admitted in terms of absolute numbers, Lind points out. This justifies higher admissions rates for men, he says.

"It's not that we set a higher standard for women," Lind says. But if the school were to go beyond the threshold of about 60 percent women, "it might be a real negative and start creating retention problems. It's not a quota. It's a goal and objective," he says.

There is no policy favoring men over women in admissions, he says. Yet despite higher admissions rates, he does not characterize male applicants as stronger academic candidates.

"We could possibly enroll an entire class of women - our pool of women applicants is that strong," he says. "We could not enroll a whole class of men, because we don't have enough strong male candidates."

Lind, like many other admissions officials, argues that gender balance is critical to academic quality, class dynamics, and social life at coed schools.

But Jan Dawson, a history professor at Southwestern, is wary. She tells of men in a freshman seminar last fall disrupting her class.

"They were getting up, walking around, writing immature notes on the blackboard," she says. "We're talking about college students at a selective liberal-arts college. For the first time, I understood how public school teachers must feel."

While that case was more extreme than most, she and other professors say there is a contrast between the seriousness and capability of most female students and many of their male counterparts.

"Dipping down to get [lower academic quality] men just for better gender balance is not the answer," she says. "While their declining numbers [on campus] are regrettable, white males are fairly low on my list of who we should have affirmative action for."

Tipping, in the interest of balance

Another school that stands out is Wesleyan, an elite liberal-arts university that counts judges, CEOs, jazz musicians, and politicians among its alumni.

Here, too, male first-time freshman applicants seem to have an advantage.

That's something Lille Thompson didn't know as she awaited the mail in the spring of 1999. Her hopes soared when she got letters putting her on the "wait lists" for Yale University, her top pick, and Williams College.

But then she got her first skinny envelope - a rejection from Wesleyan - one of her "safety schools."

"I was really surprised and so was my guidance counselor, because Wesleyan wasn't supposed to be as tough to get into as Yale and Williams," Ms. Thompson says.

Both Yale and Williams admitted women at slightly higher rates than men for the 1999-2000 school year - like the vast majority of institutions nationwide.

At Wesleyan, however, 31 percent of men who applied were admitted, compared with 27 percent of women.

Nancy Meislahn, dean of admissions, expressed surprise about the Monitor's findings, since the academic quality of men and women applicants is basically the same, she says. "It's something we'll have to look at."

Academic factors like grades and class ranking are most important in determining admissions, along with SAT scores, she says. But like most selective schools, Wesleyan also takes into account many nonacademic elements - such as race, geographic region, religion, personal background, and recommendations - when trying to compile a strong and diverse class.

"There's no question that gender balance on campus is a priority," Ms. Meislahn says. "But it's just part of a list of ... competing priorities that sometimes means making some very fine distinctions."

With 48 percent men on campus, Wesleyan does not have a big gender gap. But it could have been bigger had men not been admitted and enrolled at higher rates than women from 1997 to 1999. That's because just 41 percent of applicants in those years were men. Meislahn says she doesn't know why the enrollment rates among admitted males has also been higher, since there is no gender-based difference in financial-aid packages.

Admitting and enrolling men at higher rates three years in a row at Wesleyan "raises questions about whether there's a pervasive tilt to the playing field there," says Bob Schaeffer, a statistician at Fairtest in Cambridge, Mass., who researches gender bias in testing and is an expert in bias cases.

Says Meislahn: "Gender is not the final arbiter in every case, but it is a very important consideration in the work we do because of what's happening in the [college applicant] pipeline."

Fortunately for Thompson, the would-be Wesleyan student, missing her shot didn't mean accepting a lesser college. She won admission to Williams. "I was worried for a while, but things turned out well anyway," she says.

The legal angle

Unlike gender, the use of race as a factor in college admissions is under heavy legal fire. At least a half-dozen civil rights lawsuits against public universities or university systems nationwide allege race bias in admissions, according to the American Association of University Professors. Most involve graduate or law-school admissions. But one case at the University of Michigan charges race bias in undergraduate admissions. Could today's race cases provide the template for future legal arguments against gender bias?

"Yes," says Curt Levey, legal affairs director at the Center for Individual Rights in Washington, which has attacked affirmative action for minorities in college admissions.

"It's just like racial preferences," he says. "It's OK if they [colleges and universities] are admitting men at higher percentages than women or vice versa - just as long as they are not using gender as one of their criteria."

A. Lee Parks, who handled the University of Georgia suit for Johnson, says gender may be used to some degree in admissions. But if it becomes a "determinative factor," it violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. It also may violate the 1972 Title IX amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he says. Title IX prohibits any educational institution receiving federal funding from discriminating against anyone on the basis of sex, he says.

Martin Michaelson, a Washington lawyer who represents colleges and universities, says gender discrimination is clearly permitted in some cases, but is less clear-cut in others. "Some colleges admit only men, some only women, and Congress expressly did not wish to forbid colleges from operating that way."

At the Office for Civil Rights in the US Department of Education, lawyers are busy enforcing Title IX's mandate for gender equity in college sports. But a spokesman says that recently, there's been an average of 20 complaints a year about gender bias in college admissions - recruitment, processing of applications, and selection criteria. It's not clear how many were filed by women or how many were undergraduate cases.

Admissions decisions that discriminate against women may have to become more egregious before many women start filing lawsuits. Right now, it is still a "stealth issue," some say.

"These days, it is just assumed that if it's good to have a racially diverse campus, then it's good to have gender diversity," Mr. Parks says. "The irony, of course, is that nobody considered doing this for women when men were dominant on campus in the 1960s."

It's hard to see any gender gap at all while strolling under the flowering trees at the University of Georgia. Second-year student Erin Kelley doesn't really see the 45/55 male-female ratio on campus as a serious gender imbalance.

"I guess I don't notice it because most of my friends are guys," she says. But even if the proportion of women were much higher, it still wouldn't justify favoring men in admissions, she says.

"I think they should throw out the little boxes you have to check with gender and race on them," she says. "It should be your own academic achievement that gets you into this university - not whether you're a guy, a girl, or your skin is purple."

Where the numbers come from

The Monitor analyzed undergraduate admissions data from coed, four-year colleges and universities in the United States.

Data was provided by Peterson's, the college guidebook publisher, for the school years starting in fall 1997, 1998, and 1999. Statisticians at JBL Associates Inc. in Baltimore helped with the analysis.

Schools were not included if they had incomplete data, had fewer than 30 full-time freshmen, were located in Puerto Rico, or were a military institution.

For 1999-2000, 1,006 schools were included; for '98-'99, 884; for '97-'98, 815.

When the term "selective" is used, it refers to schools that admitted less than 50 percent of their applicants.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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