Chicago Tribune

Colleges lowering bar to get moreómales?

Girls passed over to close gender gap

By Meg McSherry BreslinTribune Staff Writer
June 4, 2000
Chicago Tribune

In the especially tough college admissions season that just ended, an unlikely and even controversial group of high school seniors proved to have an edge: boys.

High school admissions counselors across the country said a growing number of colleges have recently begun admitting boys over girls to achieve some balance on campuses dominated by women.

The new focus on boys brings a strong reaction from some higher education leaders who worry that qualified girls are being treated unfairly.

In light of the privileges afforded men in the workforce and the struggles women face in breaking through the glass ceiling, some say it's disheartening that men are now considered worthy of affirmative action.

"It's clear when looking at admissions policies that colleges are dipping lower into their male pools than they are with their female pool," said Margaret Miller, president of the American Association of Higher Education.

Women have slightly outnumbered men on college campuses nationally since the 1970s, but in recent years the gap has been widening rapidly, for reasons that remain unclear.

Miller noted a certain irony in the fact that this predominance of high-achieving women has caused such a reaction.

"Universities have just opened up more to women in my memory, and nobody seemed to be particularly concerned about that for decades and decades," Miller said.

Admissions officials for at least three Midwestern liberal arts schools—Lake Forest College, Macalester College in St. Paul and Kenyon College in Ohio—acknowledge that they have given preference to boys over girls on their waiting list.

A number of other college officials say gender is not considered in the general admissions process or with wait-listed students, an assertion that one admissions official scoffs at.

School leaders "truly aren't being honest" if they deny considering gender for wait-listed students, said Brian K. Smith, a Lake Forest College admissions official.

"Everybody gets in a room after the May 1 deadline and looks at their gender balance," he said. "If they have this many people on the wait list, they have to do something about it, which means taking males over females."

At Lake Forest, the wait-list preference affects only a handful of students. It was intended to help address a growing imbalance of men, who make up about 43 percent of the student body.

For high school college counselors, even the slightest edge for either sex can be troubling, especially during an admissions season that was already among the most competitive in recent history.

James Conroy, a counselor at New Trier High School in Winnetka, said it was clear that many of his female students were denied admission over males who were less qualified. But if confronted on it, the colleges often argue that they simply had more highly qualified males that year, or that other factors, such as the boy's leadership or extracurricular activities, played a role, he said.

"It's certainly something that is an issue, and we're seeing more of it," Conroy said. "But the hard part is that with all the subtleties of the college admissions process, it's hard to quantify.

"Colleges can't say gender is not a consideration," he said. "The problem is many colleges are dancing around it."

To that point, Smith conceded Lake Forest officials have been quiet about their use of preferences. While they've looked to boys on the wait list for three years, they have not notified high school counselors about the change unless they asked about it, Smith said.

"It's really not something we share with anyone," he said. "If they ask and it's a counselor we have a rapport with, we'll tell them chances are the male will get off quicker than the female would."

This week, members of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, a consortium of 14 liberal arts colleges, plan to discuss responses to the gender imbalance at a meeting in Iowa. Some colleges in that group have recently seen males dip to 40 percent of their classes.

Instead of turning to wait lists, some universities say they consider gender only for students applying to particular colleges, and this can work to the benefit of both women and men. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, boys applying to the predominantly female education school have been given preference in recent years. At the same time, girls are favored over boys in the male-dominated engineering school.

Meanwhile, a number of other Midwestern schools, including DePaul University, have stepped up their recruiting efforts for boys, targeting male candidates with extra phone calls and mailings. Smaller schools have introduced football teams or academic programs that appeal more to males, such as engineering and business programs.

Higher education officials disagree over whether the male preferences are legally defensible for public and private universities.

The University of Georgia last fall dropped an admissions formula that gave boys extra points over girls after a female student filed a lawsuit claiming the policy was discriminatory. The student, Jennifer Johnson, argued that she was denied admission over less-qualified males because of the policy.

A day after the lawsuit was filed, the university admitted Johnson, but she had already decided to attend another school. Lee Parks, Johnson's attorney, said they are still pursuing the case in federal court to set a legal precedent.

"To me it is the ultimate irony that if women have overcome discrimination to the point where they're now excelling, that we would put in the proverbial glass ceiling and say, 'Don't succeed too much,'" Parks said.

Some students who just endured the competitive admissions season also are turned off by the practice.

"I don't think it's necessarily living up to their reputation," said Marc DeMoss, a senior at Lake Forest High School who's bound for the University of Chicago. "It's kind of hypocritical when they're taking less competitive students over some students who could contribute a lot more."

Still, many admissions officials say it is important to maintain a balance among the sexes because it makes the university more appealing to both sexes, with more lively classroom discussions and social opportunities.

"For the campus experience, I wouldn't want to be so dominant in either gender that it would become sort of a detriment to future students considering us," said Ray Kennelly, dean of admission at DePaul University, where the student body is roughly 60 percent female. "Anytime the balance becomes more extreme, then there's marketing challenges."

Despite the growing concern over imbalances, some admissions leaders hope they don't have to take more drastic measures to boost male enrollments.

"You don't want to start choosing students just based on their gender; that's not fair to anybody," said Michael Thorp, admissions director at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.

At Macalester College, which is about 41 percent male, college officials have thus far opted against offering more financial aid or other benefits to boys in the initial acceptance pool.

The wait list is treated differently because it's traditionally used to help make a student body more diverse—whether that means more oboe players, athletes, minorities or men.

"If we see an imbalance, we go to the wait list and take off mostly men," said Lorne Robinson, dean of admissions and financial aid. Last year, that meant taking 12 boys and six girls from the wait list.

Some argue that admissions officials could avoid all the controversy if they instead attacked the underlying problem of the dwindling numbers of boys. The causes of that trend are still being sorted out, but some say the problem lies in the poor performance of many boys in high school, coupled with the lure of lucrative careers in high-tech fields that don't require college degrees.

"The way to handle this is not to tinker with admissions policies," Miller said. "The way to handle it is by capturing the interest of boys early in their schooling."


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