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Overview: The Gender Equation

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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

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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