Revisiting the College Gender Gap
Gender and College Admissions
Should colleges put an emphasis on admitting men and women equally?
Marie Bigham sat down in her first admissions committee meeting 25 years ago. As a newly appointed associate director of admissions at Washington University in St. Louis, her alma mater, Bigham was tasked with helping decide which students get admitted to one of the nation’s most selective universities. A quarter-century later, she still remembers a comment made by the person in charge as she and her colleagues discussed the prospective students.
“Remember,” Bigham recalls them saying, “we love our boys and we need more boys.”
She had this conversation in 1997, a full 25 years after the implementation of Title IX. When the landmark legislation codified equal opportunity for women in education into law in 1972, more than 15% of men held college degrees as opposed to just 9% of women. But the less-than-subtle reminder from Bigham’s boss was, and is, a reminder of higher education’s ongoing focus on gender balance in admissions, a response to the ever-diminishing pool of male applicants and, consequentially, matriculated students. Women currently make up almost 60% of all college students, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
Title IX is likely just one of several social gains for women that helped fuel this shift, along with accessible birth control, the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision and the second-wave feminist movement. The result is a gender gap in university enrollment that has prompted concern from leaders in education nationwide. Women have been making strides in higher education since the 1950s, reaching parity with men in the early 1980s and continuing their demographic growth ever since. As a result, colleges are eager to admit boys, even when they’re less qualified than their female counterparts.
“My professional experience is that being a boy is like putting the thumb on the scale,” said Bigham, co-founder and executive director of ACCEPT Group, a nonprofit focused on equity and diversity issues in college admissions. “It’s like an extra 70 to 100 points on the SAT.”
As someone who has worked both in university admissions and as a high school counselor, Bigham is well aware of how gender can impact admissions. Throughout her tenure, gender parity has been a goal of co-ed institutions across the country. She recalls admissions officers at schools apologizing for having more women than men as she toured, including one particularly memorable visit to the College of Charleston.
“They kept talking about ‘We can’t achieve gender balance because we don’t have football [and] boys don’t go to a college without a football team,’” she said.
According to the Clearinghouse statistics, however, men don’t seem to want to go to college at all, at least not at nearly the rate women do. Patricia Anderson, a professor of economics at Dartmouth University, took note of this phenomenon back in 2000. She wrote, “Where the Boys No Longer Are: Recent Trends in U.S. College Enrollment Patterns” to try to understand exactly why. She found that boys may view the opportunity cost of college, or the deferred wages they lost out on while studying, to be too high to justify attendance.
“‘I’m giving up being a factory worker or construction worker, clerk, whatever it is, and in return, I’m going to make more money further down the road,’” Anderson said, articulating her theory. “That’s going to outweigh the current cost. But how you value the future depends on how patient you are.”
Even 20 years ago, Anderson felt this hypothesis was incomplete. While some men were able to earn steady wages without a degree, union jobs with livable salaries and benefits were becoming increasingly scarce at the time — a trend that has only grown since 2000. Men then and now aren’t able to rely on certain industries with consistent benefits and steady wages, like manufacturing, to provide stable, guaranteed work as they might have half a century ago. Regardless, she said, “men keep not going to college.”
Dr. Sandra Lane, a professor of anthropology and public health at Syracuse University, said she also took note of this trend around the same time. She noticed that women had begun to outnumber men in her anthropology department and decided to explore whether any other academics had noted this trend. She found one: Christine Hoff Sommers, a conservative writer and philosopher who blamed the feminist movement for pushing boys out of academia. And while she wasn’t completely on board with Sommers’s condemnation of feminism, they both felt the gender gap was a phenomenon with potentially vast consequences worth recognizing and exploring.