Do Colleges Favor Male Applicants?

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is investigating whether some private colleges discriminate against women in admissions. The commission says it's acting because in recent years, some colleges have admitted significantly larger percentages of male applicants to their freshman classes than female applicants.

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As a group, women have been outperforming men in college for years. Now the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wants to know if colleges have begun admitting less qualified men instead of more qualified women because those colleges fear their campuses might become overwhelmingly female.

NPRs Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Since 1970, the college attendance rate among women has skyrocketed. Today on most college campuses, women are the majority and theyre not just growing in numbers. They now earn about 60 percent of all Bachelors degrees. Gail Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego, didnt think this was a problem until she says she recently noticed something else.

Professor GAIL HERIOT (University of San Diego): We had heard about, and I had seen articles that suggested that some colleges and universities are discriminating in favor of men and against women in their admissions processes.

SANCHEZ: Heriot, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, says colleges, especially small, selective liberal arts colleges, are so worried about becoming overwhelmingly female that some may be rejecting highly qualified women to make room for less qualified men, and that, Heriot says, would be a violation of Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits gender discrimination in any school or program that accepts federal aid.

So what Heriot and other members of the Civil Rights Commission plan to do is subpoena the admissions records and policies of at least 12 public and private colleges.

Prof. HERIOT: We dont know whether were going to find discrimination at all, but were going to be looking, and we hope that if nothing else, this study will allow us to nail down the facts.

SANCHEZ: But some say the commissions investigation into gender discrimination is baseless.

Prof. HERIOT: Is there evidence of this? Who has it? Where is it?

SANCHEZ: Jennifer Delahunty is dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College, a small private school in Ohio.

Professor JENNIFER DELAHUNTY (Kenyon College): I dont see anybody who has a policy that says, you know, that were going to chose less qualified boys over more qualified girls. No admissions office would make those kinds of decisions. So I wonder if theyre not barking at the wrong tree with this investigation.

SANCHEZ: Ironically, it was Delahuntys 2006 op-ed piece in the New York Times about highly qualified women, including her daughter, being rejected by top schools that started a firestorm over gender discrimination in college admissions. Today, Delahunty argues that colleges should be concerned about the drop in male enrollment.

Since the mid 1990s, researchers say that drop has been precipitous. Today the share of 25 to 29-year-old males with a bachelors degree is much lower compared to females in the same age group. And academically women continue to outperform men, says Tom Mortenson, an analyst with the Pell Institute for the study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

Mr. TOM MORTENSON (Pell Institute): They graduate from high school at higher rates than men do. They go on to college at higher rates. They complete college at higher rates. And I see nothing right now thats going to turn that around.

SANCHEZ: With few college-eligible males in the pipeline, Mortenson argues, the gender imbalance on campuses is inevitable.

Mr. MORTENSON: And the people who work on these campuses say that boys, frankly, are not at their best where they are outnumbered two to one by girls. Its probably not a healthy situation for either gender.

SANCHEZ: That may be true, says Commissioner Gail Heriot, but this is not about the gender imbalance on campuses. Its about the civil rights of women and whether theyve violated in the college admissions process. The commissions findings would be made public within a year.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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