When women reached 40 percent of the student body at Stanford University, the school made a decision. Rather than watch the majority male culture slip away, officials simply capped the number of women admitted to the prestigious institution.
That was a century ago.
Back then, perhaps, the decisive step was an easy call. But today, American colleges and universities are facing a similar dilemma - and the answer is anything but clear-cut.
Three decades after the last bastions of elite, all-male education opened doors to the opposite sex, colleges are struggling with an unanticipated development: more women than men on campus. In some cases, women only slightly tip the balance. Elsewhere, the gender gap is dramatic enough to prompt
both male and female students to pack up tuition dollars and transfer - or never to apply at all.
A number of institutions across the United States take that possibility as a serious threat - a perception that stands in sharp contrast to that of the late-1960s and '70s, when gender gaps that favored men were considered a given at many schools. And the prospect is provoking heated debate, not only about how to attract more men, but whether to give them a leg up in admissions.
Currently, just 44 percent of American undergraduates are men. In another decade, the US Department of Education predicts, that number will slip to 42 percent.
To some observers, it's a reasonable result of the fact that women are applying in record numbers and have, overall, better high school academic credentials than men. The only action needed - particularly according to those who helped pry open the doors of opportunity to women - is to continue to decide an applicant's case on the merits, letting the gender balances tilt where they may. But to others, there's no
better way to undermine a campus's long-term success.
"It will become harder and harder to attract men or women if the gender balance gets too far out of whack," says Michael McPherson, president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.
Unlike previous generations, most students today view a roughly equal ratio of men to women as integral to a well-rounded college experience - whether in classes, the dining halls, or at parties. Administrators worry that, unlike the women who saw prestige in being in the minority at a former men's college, men and women alike may question the benefits of attending a predominantly female institution.
Some take the issue beyond the ivory gates to the societal impact. By the end of the decade, an estimated 200,000 college-educated women won't find a college-educated man to marry, says Thomas Mortenson, policy analyst with the Center for the Study of Opportunity and Higher Education.
Whatever the reason, campuses like Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and the University of Georgia have been
pondering their response - be it giving greater weight to SAT scores, which tends to benefit men, or adjusting other admissions factors.
What lies at the root of the gender imbalance is unclear. Some point a finger at a lack of male role models among teachers, or a K-12 school ethos that is unaccommodating to boys. Others target an anti-intellectual culture among boys. A thriving economy and a wealth of computer-oriented jobs have also lured away males who otherwise might have attended to higher academic credentials.
Schools on the front line of the issue tend to be small liberal-arts institutions without big sports programs. Yet the gender gap is hardly limited to such places. A Monitor analysis shows the gap falling across all types and sizes of institutions, with 83 percent of 1,006 coed schools having fewer undergraduate men than women.
Still, there's disagreement on how big or pervasive the problem is. "There is not a generalized educational crisis among men, but there are real pockets of problems," writes Jacqueline King, a policy analyst at the American Council on Education in
Washington. In a recent report, Dr. King documents that African-American, Hispanic, and low-income men lag female peers to a much greater degree than white, middle-class men in educational attainment.
Nevertheless, even schools that are predominantly white are already thinking carefully about their image - and how it might resonate with young men of all races. Knox College, for example, where about 45 percent of the students are men, recently removed some pictures of women and minorities from its marketing materials in favor of more pictures featuring action shots of white males.
Fifteen years ago, the focus was on marketing materials that resonated with women, says Paul Steenis, Knox's director of admissions. Many pictures of women were added.
Now, the school is shifting. "We thought the pendulum had swung too far," he says. "Lately, we have been asking: Have we ... written white men out of the picture?"
Even as they worry about the gender balance, many institutions, like the students applying to them, are operating under new pressures. Schools have never been in a tougher competitive environment, increasing the urgency of staying attractive. First-tier universities generally have an abundance of both male and female applicants. But schools without big reputations may need a gender balance to attract quality applicants.
Americans' views of the importance of college also have changed - increasing insistence for admissions based more on academic merit and less on other factors. Grades and test scores are the measures in a growing number of lawsuits by whites who charge reverse discrimination.
Both Title IX, the 1972 amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment prohibit gender discrimination. They were both cited in a 1999 federal lawsuit alleging gender bias in college admissions, filed against the University of Georgia.
Some observers, though, find the gender-balance discussion more annoying than anything else.
"Thirty-five years ago, administrators at hundreds of all-male colleges said, 'We can't attract enough men so we've got to go coed,' " says Michael Kimmel, a sociologist at State University of New York at Stony Brook. "Now those women have arrived ... and their success has these same people saying, 'We've got to kick the women out because we don't have enough men.' "
That criticism doesn't faze many admissions directors. They dread the possibility of undergraduates who, if not satisfied, will simply transfer.
By the time Sarah Clanton wrapped up freshman year at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, last spring, she was a promising history student. But she had decided to leave for Texas A&M University.
"I loved Southwestern," she says. "What I didn't like was the social environment. There just weren't any men."
Given such sentiments, admissions director John Lind knows he has his work cut out for him. "Our challenge is to keep a reasonable balance," he says of Southwestern, which is 42 percent men. "Most years we've been able to pull it off. It's been an issue for years. I don't see it going away...."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor