Inside the ivied halls of higher education, a quiet courtship is taking place. The suitors are admissions directors who seek out qualified males. With women outnumbering men on many campuses, schools use gender bias to adjust a gender imbalance.
Some institutions entice men by adding engineering programs or football teams. Others seek out high school boys who take early college-entrance exams. Many make sure that admissions staff include men.
When researchers at US News & World Report magazine analyzed data from more than 1,400 four-year colleges and universities, they found that in the past decade, many schools had maintained gender balance by admitting many more men than women, even when the women candidates were more qualified.
Historically, the gender pendulum in higher education has swung back and forth. From 1900 to 1930, ratios were about equal. After World War II, the GI Bill benefited veterans, and men enrolled in greater numbers. By the early 1980s, women and men enjoyed rough parity. Now women account for nearly 58 percent of the 16.6 million college students. In three years, the ratio is projected to be around 60 to 40.
Admissions directors cite several reasons for wanting to keep the numbers as equal as possible. Balance makes social life easier. It also helps schools attract the best candidates of both sexes: When the gender balance tilts to a 60-40 ratio, favoring either gender, students are less interested in attending.
Yet maintaining gender balance by turning down well-qualified women to make room for men with less impressive qualifications has some critics crying foul. They want admissions offices to follow market forces. They argue that gender favoritism should not be part of admission practices at public colleges, which receive government funding.
Others say the problem is more about race and class than gender. For students from high-income families, the gender gap disappears. Low-income students of all races are affected the most.
Some opponents say preferential treatment amounts to affirmative action for boys. Defenders deny that charge, insisting that capable women are not being excluded from higher education generally. Still, it may be only a matter of time until a well-qualified young woman who is denied admission to her preferred school files a lawsuit charging discrimination.
Legal experts note that the laws remain vague on this issue. Several rulings have focused on race but not gender. Some states have outlawed both race and gender preferences in any state activity.
A report last year from the Education Sector, a nonprofit think tank, urges Americans to keep the issue in perspective. "The real story is not bad news about boys doing worse," it states. "It's good news about girls doing better." The group notes that the number of men attending college is still increasing, although not as fast as the rate for women. And men still receive higher pay than women in many comparable jobs.
As schools continue to court male applicants, some admission counselors recommend making elementary and secondary schools more boy-friendly. And strengthening boys' education will better prepare them for college.
Narrowing the achievement gap will also help to ensure that fairness prevails in determining which college applicants get the coveted thick envelope signaling acceptance.