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Do Colleges Discriminate Against Women in Admissions?

November 3, 2009

by Emily

College admission practices are often points of contention, especially when tricky issues like race, gender, and socioeconomic class are concerned. Colleges worry about trying to promote diversity and give students a fair chance in their admission practices and other parties worry about practices potentially shortchanging students. Based on some of these concerns, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has decided to investigate allegations of gender bias in admission practices at selective colleges. The concern: in order to preserve male-to-female ratios on campus, colleges are being less selective in admitting male students than in admitting female students.

In recent decades, women have begun to thrive in higher education, making up a significantly larger share of undergraduate students, bachelor's degree recipients, and master's degree students than men. Postsecondary Education Opportunity data shows that currently there are 77 men in college for every 100 women, and 73 male bachelor's degree recipients for every 100 female graduates. While gender gaps still persist within specific fields, including traditionally male-dominated disciplines like engineering and computer science, overall women are coming to college in droves and doing well once they arrive.

This trend shows no sign of reversing and has some worried that men will become increasingly underrepresented in higher education, while simultaneously work opportunities contract in traditionally male-dominated fields that don't require degrees. Schools and other organizations are beginning to address these concerns. For example, a conference panel last month addressed some of the moves being undertaken to encourage more young men to attend college and persist to a degree.

The Commission on Civil Rights inquiry is intended to see if practices are going beyond encouraging young men to enroll and have actually moved into the territory of discriminating against women in admission by admitting a smaller percentage of female applicants and being more selective in admitting women than men. This practice, while possibly unethical at private colleges, would be illegal at state colleges. So far, there hasn't been sufficient evidence to support this theory, with the majority of admission officers recently saying they don't consider gender as an important criterion in college admission, leaving some wondering if the inquiry is entirely necessary. Information subpoenaed from colleges in the Washington, D.C. area should help the commission determine whether reality reflects reporting.

Adding in another level of controversy and drawing a great deal of criticism to the investigation is the strong focus on athletics in the text of the proposal for the investigation. The theory behind it seems to be that Title IX, the federal regulation designed to prevent sex discrimination--most visibly by mandating that men's and women's sports are equally represented in public schools--is preventing men from enrolling in college by limiting their opportunities for athletic involvement. Of all the directions the investigation could take, this certainly seems to be an unusual one, and on the surface it seems to present some problematic and likely inaccurate assumptions about gender. The investigation gets underway this month, so a clearer sense of direction may emerge as time goes on.


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