Gender gap is far from academic for colleges

For nearly 350 years, men outnumbered women on most of America's college campuses. But today some observers say undergraduate males are becoming an endangered species.

It's clear why Frank Nash, the admissions director at Bloomfield College in Bloomfield, N.J., might feel that way. Only about 30 percent of the college's 1,800 students are men.

Mr. Nash's mission is to narrow that gender gap. So at college fairs, Nash has started touting Bloomfield's beefed-up technology curriculum, athletic scholarships, and a new cross-country team. His media blitz features a pitch about friendly professors and a life-changing diploma - wedged between head-banging songs on a rock 'n' roll station.

"We're trying to get guys working at Home Depot to realize that, without a degree, they're stuck at the checkout counter," Nash says.

Bloomfield's guy gap is bigger than that at most schools. But such efforts to reach out and draw more men to campus are becoming increasingly common, underscoring an emerging trend: Gender parity is a new priority.

Little research exists about the impact of a gender balance on learning. Yet since the gender-segregated walls of the Ivy League came down in the 1960s, the idea has gained status as a key component of a diverse, intellectually vibrant campus. Beyond academics, it is an expected part of campus social life.

For much of the past three decades, the focus has been on bringing more women onto campus. But now, as the female majority grows at colleges across the United States, administrators are being forced to confront the gender equation on campus in a new way. Schools are scrutinizing how they assess applicants, as well as how much - if at all - they should tinker with campus demographics where women are fast-becoming a distinct majority.

Where have all the young men gone?

Debate over the gender gap's severity in recent years has targeted its size and scope.

According to the US Department of Education, the national proportion of male undergraduates (at more than 4,000 institutions) is 44 percent, with 7 million women and 5.5 million men on campus.

By the end of the decade, that figure may drop to 42 percent. Bachelor's degrees awarded to men have fallen to about 44 percent from 51 percent in 1980.

The Monitor analyzed admissions data from 1,006 coeducational, four-year colleges and universities. It reveals that the gender gap is pervasive across institutional types. (See chart below.)

At 83 percent of the schools, men on average represented 43 percent of the student body. But at a significant minority of institutions - nearly one-third - 40 percent or less of undergraduates were men. And at three-quarters of the overall group of schools, fewer than half of freshman applicants were men.

The gender gap is far worse at historically black colleges and universities and in other minority groups, experts say. Among African-Americans enrolled in college, 62 percent are women compared with just 37 percent men.

The impact of this shortfall varies greatly from campus to campus. It may be almost unnoticeable in large campus crowds, or immediately obvious in a history class.

Where it is more evident is around the edges, maybe changing the tenor of class discussions or making it easier for men than women to find a date.

Ask Jamie Kelly about being one of the 40 percent of male students at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Penn., and he laughs.

"It is not a big problem in class," says the senior English major. Still, he admits that dating on the campus can be "an odd situation," where it is "much harder to find an unattached guy than an unattached girl."

Like Bloomfield College, Dickinson is among the 31 percent of colleges that have 40 percent or less undergraduate men, as well as fewer male than female applicants.

To Robert Massa and other senior administrators at Dickinson, the gender gap is far more than a superficial social-scene issue - it's a top priority.

In the mid-1990s, Dickinson's freshman class was about 36 percent men. To a new school president and senior administration taking over the reins in 1999, that ratio was reason for concern.

"A 60/40 [female majority] like we now have is not too big an issue," says Mr. Massa, who is vice president for enrollment and admissions. "But with a 70/30 imbalance, you get to the point where you have a real difficult time attracting students."

That's the problem facing many institutions in the "nonselective private college" category that Dickinson fits into. For its analysis, the Monitor defined a selective institution as one that admitted less than 50 percent of those who applied.

Some of the sharpest gender-gap difficulties are among liberal-arts colleges.

"All too often, liberal-arts colleges talk about teaching you 'how to learn,' " Massa says. "That's true, but very amorphous. We have to emphasize practical learning, too. That's going to resonate with women too, but in particular it will resonate with men."

Dickinson recruiters today pump the school's new physics, math, and computer-science building. All marketing materials are being checked to ensure they're male friendly. But it's not just the message that's changing. Perhaps the gap's biggest potential impact is on admissions criteria.

Massa says Dickinson practices "affirmative action for men." That means the admissions office evaluates male and female applicants today somewhat less on their academic performance in high school, leaning more heavily on measures in which men typically do better than women, especially SAT scores and "leadership" skills, he says.

One key result: For 2000-2001, after years of little change, the rate at which men were admitted rose 9 percentage points, while the same rate for women fell 9 percentage points when compared with 1999-2000 figures, Massa says. If that continues, Dickinson will close the gender gap and become more marketable.

It's not a matter of admitting unqualified applicants, Massa says. "What we were doing was denying guys that could do the work."

His new approach is under scrutiny by faculty concerned that the quality of the student body may drop - or that men may get a leg up out of proportion to their academic credentials.

Amy Farrell, director of women's studies at Dickinson, is one who is watching Massa's experiment closely.

"I don't agree with the overall rush to get more men on campus," she says. "There just wasn't the same urgency in the '60s [to get more women on campus]. Does that mean we will favor a less well-qualified man and not give admission to a better-qualified woman?"

Massa says that's not the case, saying such changes are on the margins. He acknowledges, however, that an "ethical issue" could arise for any college if it seems to the public as though "better qualified" students are being denied.

'The Rules' for academia

Other institutions are trying to close the gap in a variety of ways.

At Seattle Pacific University, a private Christian university in Washington, where 34 percent of undergraduates are men, pictures of women in marketing brochures were recently replaced by shots of energetic young men. Brochure colors were changed from pastels to what some consider more-masculine forest greens and burgundies.

At Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., with about 43 percent undergraduate men, a new outreach program tries to attract more minority male applicants by sending recruiters to inner-city recreation centers and churches.

"We're taking [minority men] in, but they're going out the back door," says Eleanor Graves, director of multiethnic services at Austin Peay State. "We are trying harder to create the kind of climate that makes them want to persist."

Minority males not only drop out at higher rates than do white males, but are harder to recruit.

Just ask Michael Lomax, president of Dillard University, a historically black institution in New Orleans. Only 23 percent of undergraduates at Dillard are men, and the school has been striving to attract more, with only modest success so far, he says. It is a plight widely felt among historically black colleges, he said at a recent conference.

The biggest impact is social. When the gender balance swings too far on campus, it can end up "creating unhealthy situations," Dr. Lomax says. When greatly outnumbered, men may view women more callously, in turn increasing abusive behavior, he and others say.

Skip the dances, girls

But social imbalance is hardly confined to historically black institutions.

Tasha Christensen is a member of the Ballroom Dance Club at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., where about 43 percent of the student body is male.

"A lot of times women have a hard time finding a guy to go out with," she says. "We have quite a few women in the dance club who have learned how to lead. It's still difficult ... when you don't have a partner."

Yesenia Garcia, a sophomore theater and communications major at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, would just like a few more guys on campus to socialize with. She's getting tired of going to parties and dancing in a circle with a bunch of women.

"I'm about to stop going to them," she says. "What's the point?"

Hardly oblivious to such sentiments, Southwestern has been searching for young men with new resolve. The admissions office sends some mailings just to men. It often calls men - but not usually women - to remind them about the admissions deadline, the admissions director says.

But is it really a problem?

While some faculty and administrators are alarmed, others are unsure if there's really a problem there.

On some campuses, educators debate whether a balance of men and women is as essential to learning as some claim. Some wonder why coed schools have a problem with a 70/30 gender imbalance when all-women colleges seem to do just fine educating their students.

The answer, observers say, is that gender balance is integral to the demands of a world that now expects coeducation.

"It's a key part of the learning environment," says Nancy Meislahn, dean of admissions and financial aid at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. "The best educational moments happen when smart, well-reasoned people disagree. We feel a gender balance is critical to academic discourse. It's not just that we're worried who dates whom on a Friday night."

But Richard Hart, chair of the philosophy department at Bloomfield, sometimes has only a few men in his classes. He says the impact is neutral.

"I don't think it affects the academic quality of my classes at all to have more women," he says. "There hasn't been any shift in the quality of the learning experience or the rigors of the courses."

Still, Caley Thomas, a Southwestern sophomore who found himself and two other men outnumbered by 21 women in a class, says debates were at times "a bit intimidating. "

Some professors actually think that classes are better with fewer men. "There is a willingness among the women to go beyond the superficial, beyond the scholastic to the scholarly," says Daniel Castro, a Southwestern professor.

First impressions are important

By far the biggest potential impact of the gender gap is on that initial look at a campus by a prospective student. Many students, who can easily get Internet information about schools' gender splits, appear ready to avoid campuses with a split they deem too large.

"I do remember seeing it listed in all the college guidebooks," says Margeaux Herman, a senior sociology major at Wesleyan. "It jumped out at me but ultimately didn't sway me. If it was 70/30 though, it might have."

Cheryl Louie, a senior psychology major at Seattle Pacific, is not too concerned about the dearth of men, but says it would spice up class discussions if there were more of them around.

"It's kind of an ongoing joke how there's 10 girls for every guy, but there's really just 3 for every 2. I do hear girls griping that they want a boyfriend," she says.

Jennifer Kenney, director of admissions at Seattle Pacific, says the gender gap was the focus of an internal review.

"We decided we can't really pinpoint a negative impact so far," she says. "Anecdotally, for social reasons, we would want to be more balanced. But in terms of the way we deliver education, it's not having an impact in the classroom."

The sports magnet

Public research universities generally have the least need to act. As a group, they have an average of 49 percent males across all 75 campuses. Among the 47 campuses that do have a gap, the average is about 45 percent male, the Monitor analysis shows. Men may be attracted to the high-tech curriculum and big-time sports at such institutions, educators say.

Those are attributes a number of smaller institutions are trying to mimic. At Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., for example, where about 41 percent of students are men, administrators decided to start an intercollegiate hockey team in 1998 specifically to attract more men.

It worked - sort of.

"It's kept us about even," says William Brown Jr., dean of admissions and financial aid. "It stemmed some of the trend toward decreasing numbers of males but certainly hasn't reversed it."

Meanwhile, back at Bloomfield, Jason Brooks, a sophomore, trudges to business classes and afternoon practices as a star forward on the basketball team - a valued recruit in class and on court.

Mr. Brooks says he only came to Bloomfield because he got a full-ride basketball scholarship. He's working hard in his business major, too, in case plans to turn professional don't work out.

The gender imbalance doesn't bother Brooks socially. Being part of the minority in class, though, can be intimidating, even a 6-foot, 7-inch basketball star.

"Last semester I was in a class with more females," he says. "We were outnumbered enough that if you started saying something they didn't like, you'd be overwhelmed by a whole lot of them. We [men] had to watch what we said."

For expanded data on gender issues in college admissions, go to www.csmonitor.com/genderequation.

Send e-mail comments about the series to claytonm@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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