Making room for men's gains where women once reigned

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Four years ago, the women of William Woods University in Fulton, Mo., wore T-shirts emblazoned with the "Top 10 Reasons" not to admit men.

This month, for the first time in its 131-year history, the school had a cadre of men at commencement who had enrolled as freshmen.

Sixteen male pioneers gently held an ivy strand linking the graduates - male and female - in a ceremony long performed only by women.

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In her introduction of commencement speaker William Shatner, university president Jahnae Barnett noted how appropriate it was to hear from the man forever known as Star Trek's captain: This crew of graduating men, after all, had "dared to go where no man has gone before."

With about 25 percent men on campus, William Woods certainly expects the number of men to grow. But with fewer men than women applying to US colleges in general, a 50/50 gender balance may be an impossible ideal.

It's an issue that concerns admissions officers around the United States. But as colleges search - sometimes frantically - for new ways to draw men onto campus, they may take a cue from early pioneers in this effort: former women's colleges.

Over the past three decades, many such institutions have grappled with the gender gap. Yet for the most part, they have found that a ratio tipped toward women doesn't have to be cause for panic.

"Look, everyone wants it to be as diverse as possible, and that includes having a good number of men," says Miriam Cohen, a history professor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "But we are just not going to get hung up on it."

That's not to say former women's colleges aren't trying hard, along with other coed schools, to attract enough men to keep their representation to at least 40 percent of the student body.

But officials at these schools don't see a 50/50 balance as a litmus test of higher-education quality. Some say their willingness to appreciate their legacy as a women's college is actually a plus.

"In the early years, we made a point to parents and men that the same environment that nurtured women would also nurture men," says Gail Berson, dean of admissions at Wheaton College in Norton, Ma., which went coed in 1987. "Guys need a lot of nurturing. But we don't even have to make those arguments. We've been coed long enough [that] I don't think we have to sell the guys as much anymore."

Still, many admissions directors are wary, if not exactly worried. If their gender imbalances were to widen, say, to 30 percent men, that could spawn problems.

That 40-percent litmus test

To get a glimpse of why American higher education officials are edgy about the growing gender gap on campus, one need look no farther than Skidmore College, where, until 1971, only women could enjoy the strong academics of a school nestled in the old eastern New York spa town of Saratoga Springs.

Despite intense competition among selective institutions for the best-qualified men, the percentage of undergraduate men at Skidmore, like Connecticut College (in New London) and Vassar, actually grew slightly in recent years, though it still hovers around 40 percent.

Their ability to hold that ground puts them in a group that has bucked the national trend toward widening gender gaps at many schools.

But among 60 or so Skidmore students studying or lounging on the lush grass on a recent afternoon, fewer than a dozen are men. It's not a representative snapshot, to be sure. Still, Emily Boyd wouldn't want to see the entire campus look so lopsided.

Indeed, the senior says as she balances her notebook on her lap, she might not be at Skidmore today if the school enrolled fewer men, say even 35 percent of the student body. "I would have gone somewhere else," she says firmly.

For students like Ms. Boyd, the school's former single-sex status is not the issue in assessing the school. But for some former women's colleges, overcoming stereotypes from their single-sex legacy is a factor, in large part because of parents to whom these schools still sound like places their sons can't - or perhaps shouldn't - attend.

"It hangs there as a concern," says Lee Coffin, dean of admissions at Connecticut College in New London, which went coed in 1969. "It amazes me this bias lingers over three decades. You still see fathers [of prospective applicants] who went to Trinity and Wesleyan when those schools were all-male, who remember Conn as a place they went to get dates."

Ancient history

But a new generation sees things differently. Click on the "About Vassar" button on the admissions web page, for example, and you'll find yourself face-to-face with Nick Brockert, a brawny baseball player decked out in his uniform.

"I had two main goals - study science and play baseball," the former top high school student from Kansas tells viewers. "I decided to come where I was told I could play right away, and this was it - Vassar."

His profile perhaps underscores the fact that his school's all-female past is, as Vassar puts it, so much "ancient history."

It also represents today's emphasis on smart marketing. At Skidmore, Vassar, and Connecticut College, admissions officials are working hard to recruit and admit men who can measure up to the rigors of a selective institution. And they seem to be finding them - just.

Vassar officials say they're not focusing on men. Marketing materials were revised a few years ago to appeal to men and women equally, they say. Women's biographies are also prominent on the website.

The admissions factor

Yet there may be more to narrowing a gender gap than either patience or savvy marketing. Schools may say they don't have a formal policy to boost male enrollment. But recruiting can be vigorous.

"We're looking to proactively enhance our [male] enrollment," Mr. Coffin says of Connecticut's efforts to reach out to men. "In some ways, I would say we have an unofficial affirmative-action policy for men."

But even beyond recruiting, male applicants at some women's colleges also seem to have an advantage in the selection process as well. A Monitor analysis of three years of admissions data collected from 1,006 four-year, coeducational institutions by Peterson's, the college guide book company, shows men are consistently admitted at higher rates than women at some former women's colleges.

Within a group of 124 institutions that were "selective" - admitting less than 50 percent of their overall number of applicants - just 15 colleges admitted men at higher rates than women three years in a row, from 1997-98 to 1999-2000. Vassar, Skidmore, and Connecticut College all were among that tiny group.

This comes as no surprise to some observers. "Some colleges admit men at higher rates than women, and we know they're trying to do that, to get the ratio of men and women on campus close to 50/50," says Corky Beaulieu, director of college counseling at Westover School, a girls' prep school in Middlebury, Conn.

Hilary Hughes, who oversees admissions and college counseling at The Ethel Walker School, a girls' prep school in Simsbury, Conn., agrees.

"We would like to think the highly selective schools might not lower their standards for men," she says. "It would be remarkable if this were happening, because these are schools where students are lined up 10 deep to get in. I can say, though, that it's tougher for the females to get into many of them than it used to be."

Vassar, Skidmore, and Connecticut College officials strongly deny that their higher admissions rates for men year after year indicate any official policy of giving men a leg up in the admissions process.

"We're not shooting for a higher percentage of men on campus," says David Borus, dean of admissions and financial aid at Vassar. "We're looking to admit the best candidate from the applicant pool regardless of gender.

"What you're seeing is a reflection of the fact that [Skidmore and Vassar] and many others have a much higher percentage of the applicant pool who are females, so the overall acceptance percentage for [women] is going to be lower than for men," he continues. "While the qualifications of the average student applying were very similar, we just had a much larger pool of qualified women to choose from."

Dean Borus freely concedes his school looks at gender. But it's a factor, along with "geography, ethnicity, and the rest."

Looking for long-term quality

Some schools argue that there are built-in safeguards to prevent them from bending too far to get males onto campus.

For one thing, former women's schools have become more aware that traditionally coed schools are now facing some of the same difficult issues in their search for male applicants.

In the 1997-98 school year, for instance, about 53 percent of male applicants to Connecticut College were admitted compared with 33 percent of women. Coffin says the pool of men and women were of about the same academic quality.

Today, the college's admissions tilt toward men is less extreme, though it is in at least its fifth consecutive year of admitting men at higher rates than women. An influx of applicants of both genders has allowed the school to be more selective, helping narrow the gap between male and female admissions rates. This spring at Connecticut College, for example, 39 percent of male applicants were admitted, compared with 32 percent of females.

But news about the national scope of the shortage of men on campus also caused a rethinking of an unofficial aim to achieve a 50/50 balance on campus, Coffin says. Now the school has retreated to a goal of a 60/40 ratio of women to men.

The switch in tactics also reflected concern that well-qualified women were getting shut out too often. "We started saying: 'Wait a minute, we are making too many negative decisions about women,' " he says. "We were forcing the issue instead of just following the national flow. We came to that conclusion about three years ago and started overtly changing gears."

Ms. Berson, the admissions dean at Wheaton College, says keeping an eye on academics is key to the long-term prosperity of a school. Even with just 35 percent men at Wheaton, she says, it wouldn't be prudent to lower the bar in the interest of gender balance.

"In the early years of coeducation, former women's colleges are pretty vulnerable," she says. "But you won't serve yourself well if you admit guys that way...."

Academics are paramount, she adds, pointing out that one man from Wheaton recently won a Rhodes Scholarship.

Skidmore, a selective institution that draws above-average men and women, agrees with that. The sizable annual difference in admissions rates at the school does not actually reflect "the slight difference in academic quality" between men and women applicants, officials say.

"Students want to feel they're coming to an environment where their classmates are intellectual equals," says Mary Lou Bates, dean of admissions at the college. "We accept applicants at the same level for men and women. We don't dip lower into our pool for men than we do for women."

Some students, however, are skeptics.

"There's no question it's much easier for guys to get in," says Kaitlin Malley, a junior majoring in government.

But she is not upset. "We need the guys - every one of them we can get," she says.

Sitting next to her on the lawn studying is Margeaux Matter, a junior majoring in economics. "She's right about men having an advantage," Ms. Matter says. "If it means lowering standards to get more men, that's OK, because we have to look long term ... to start the [coed] tradition."

Shonda Lackey, a sophomore psychology major, disagrees. "I think they should recruit harder for men, not just let the guy in because he's a guy," she asserts. But, she adds, sports programs will have to improve if men are going to enroll - and stay.

Even some of the men say they can't argue with the perception of advantage for men. Nick Loftus, a Skidmore freshman from Maine, recalls friends who got shut out of the school. "I knew a couple of girls from my high school with better grades than mine who were really surprised not to get in here," he says.

Micah Sloat is a Skidmore philosophy major who takes a pragmatic view. "My sister was very qualified to go to this school," he says. "She had better grades than I did, but she was denied. Do I think we should sue the school? No, I don't."

A different pattern

Not all former women's colleges put the same priority on campus gender balance. No complete list of former women's colleges exists, the Women's College Coalition reports. Yet most of those institutions identified by the Monitor did not admit men at higher rates than women.

Look, for instance, at Wheaton, William Woods, or Goucher College in Towson, Md., which went coed 13 years ago. Goucher admitted women, not men, at higher rates each of the past three years, in lock step with 3 out of 4 institutions nationwide.

"At my own institution we certainly haven't lowered the quality required to be admitted for men or women," says Barbara Fritze, vice president of enrollment management at Goucher. "We also have not looked at packaging financial aid differently for men and women."

It's not that Ms. Fritze does not care. She and Goucher hosted "Where have all the boys gone?" three years ago, the nation's first major conference examining the gender gap phenomenon in higher education.

Goucher would like to have at least a 60/40 ratio of women to men, Fritze says, but is trying within its admissions criteria to maintain 28 percent men on campus.

Is it harder for girls?

Meanwhile, Coffin at Connecticut College is pleased that the portion of men on his campus today is about 43 percent.

"One of the questions we hear a lot is: 'Is it harder for my daughter to get in than for my son?' " Coffin says. "The answer is 'no.' " He attributes this to the school's academic "depth in the applicant pool."

Vassar and Skidmore officials echo that view. They say that with so many male students who can "do the work," the fact that men are admitted at higher rates does not mean lowering quality - or favoring men.

Skidmore's Mr. Sloat sees the gender issue as a natural part of the whole selection process, which has admissions officers on the prowl for everyone from tuba players to lacrosse hotshots.

"There's a slot [in admissions] for everyone - for art majors, music majors, athletes," he says. "You just have to fit into one of those."

E-mail claytonm@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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