Why are colleges discriminating against women?

Girls outshine boys in most aspects of college. And men have not historically suffered discrimination as a group. Yet colleges routinely reject talented young women in favor of less qualified young men. Instead of rewarding girls for success, they discriminate against them.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/staff
Students at Tufts University walk between classes on Sept. 30, 2011 in Medford, Mass. In 2012, the male admission rate was five percentage points higher than that for females at Tufts. Op-ed contributor Jonathan Zimmerman writes: 'Although girls outperform boys in nearly every academic category, they also report less confidence....Surely part of the reason is the college admission system.'

Sally got better grades than Doug, but he got into Yale and she didn’t. Heather had higher SAT scores than Peter, but he’s the one who’s going to Duke. And can you believe that Georgetown accepted Mark over Cathy, even though she was class president and he didn’t seem to do much of anything?

Welcome to springtime in a leafy American suburb, if you happen to live with an 18-year-old girl. For the past few weeks, as colleges announced their admission decisions, I’ve been listening to my daughter and her friends decry the process. Girls have to meet a higher standard, they say. It’s no fair.

Alas, they’re essentially right. Girls outshine boys in almost every aspect of American secondary education. But instead of rewarding them for that, our colleges effectively discriminate against them.

According to a 2006 study conducted by scholars at the University of California, Los Angeles, 37.6 percent of senior girls reported studying six or more hours per week, as compared with 26.9 percent of boys. Girls were also more likely to talk to their teachers outside class and to participate in student clubs.

Not surprisingly, girls also received better grades. More than 50 percent of girls graduated with at least an A-minus average, while just 40 percent of boys did so.

But in 2007, U.S. News & World Report calculated that girls’ admission rate to colleges was 13 percent lower than that of boys. And at some colleges, the gap was even greater than that. In 2009, for example, William and Mary accepted 45 percent of its male applicants and only 27 percent of female ones.

The US Civil Rights Commission began an investigation that year of 19 private colleges, asking if they were discriminating against girls in admissions. But the commission suspended the probe in 2011, in part because the colleges refused to hand over their admissions data.

Discrimination continues, of course, although not to the same degree that we formerly assumed. Last week, The Washington Post reported that 16 of 128 schools it examined – including Harvard, Princeton, and Dartmouth – admitted men and women at equal rates in 2012. At 48 other schools, mostly science-oriented institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, women were actually admitted at a higher rate.

But at 64 schools, men had it easier. At Brown, Amherst, and Swarthmore, the male admission rate was three percentage points higher than that for females; at Wesleyan and Tufts, the margin was 5 percentage points.

That might not sound like a lot. But in these hypercompetitive times, when some schools receive 30,000 applications for a few thousand slots, a small gender gap can make a world of difference. “If there was a tie between two equally qualified candidates of different sexes,” Kenyon’s admissions director admitted a few years ago, “the male would be more likely to get the admit letter, and the girl would get wait-listed.”

The reason she gave was simple: If Kenyon took in too many women, it would become unattractive to female and male applicants alike. That’s been the mantra of other admissions officers, too, who warn about a “tipping point” of 60 percent. Once a college goes over that, in its fraction of females, fewer people want to go there.

But I’ve never seen any compelling data showing that’s true. And even if it is, the rationale sounds suspiciously like the one used to limit the number of Jews at selective colleges a century ago. “The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate because they drive away the Gentiles,” Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell warned in 1922, “and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also.”

Today, we’d never countenance a university leader who argued against admitting too many members of a given ethnic or racial group, lest the school become less attractive to others. Studies have shown that some institutions have set higher standards for Asian-Americans, who need SAT scores about 140 points higher than those of white students – when all else is equal – to have the same chance of getting into an elite college. But I haven’t heard anyone warn that Asian-Americans will repel other applicants if they fill too many slots at an elite college.

Instead, the rationale there – as with affirmative action – is to provide more opportunity for underrepresented groups, especially those who have historically suffered from discrimination.

Plainly, men aren’t in that category: The last time I checked, they held most of the important positions of power and influence in American society. And yet, college admissions offices lower the standard for young men – effectively raising it for women – simply to make sure that the men keep coming. The boys won’t like it if there are too many girls. And eventually, the theory goes, the girls won’t like it either.

But what does that do to the self-image of our young women? Although girls outperform boys in nearly every academic category, they also report less confidence about their scholastic abilities. Surely part of the reason is the college admission system, which routinely rejects talented girls in favor of less qualified boys.

Fortunately, my own daughter got into her first choice for college. But many of her friends weren’t so lucky. Girls often have to meet a higher standard. And that really isn’t fair. 

Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. His most recent book is “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).

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