When Shayna Medley worked as an admissions officer at Brandeis University nearly a decade ago, she said, the message from above was clear: Find more men.
After all, the number of men applying to college had already begun to fall below the number of women — a trend that would soon accelerate, worsening a growing nationwide decline in enrollment. But admissions officers still wanted to balance out the number of men and women on campus.
“Toward the end of filling out the class, there would definitely be a push to look for more men to admit,” said Medley, who was in her role at Brandeis from 2012 to 2014. “The standards were certainly lower for male students.”
As more women than men have continued to apply to college, data suggest that, at some private institutions, it’s gotten easier for male applicants to get in — and harder for female applicants.
Given a male student and a female student with a similar profile at Brandeis, for example, the university would potentially “admit the male student and wait-list the female student because of wanting to get closer to this sort of gender parity in terms of percentages in the class,” said Medley.
Brandeis accepted 44 percent of male applicants compared to 36 percent of female applicants in 2012-2013, according to data the university reports to the federal government. A spokesperson said that Brandeis does not currently use gender as a factor in its admissions process, and its acceptance rates were 31 percent for men and 35 percent for women for 2020.
“You can argue you’re not discriminating because you’re trying to get a balance, but there isn’t much else you can do besides make [gender] a factor.”Charles Deacon, dean of admission, Georgetown University
While Brandeis has actually had higher acceptance rates for women than men the last three years — it says federal data showing it accepted 51 percent of men and 21 percent of women last year is incorrect — a noncomprehensive review of federal data shows that many other selective colleges have higher admission rates for men.
These include Boston, Bowdoin and Swarthmore colleges; Brown, Denison, Pepperdine, Pomona, Vanderbilt and Wesleyan universities; and the University of Miami. At each school, men were at least 2 percentage points more likely than women to be accepted in both 2019 and 2020.
Pitzer College admitted 20 percent of men last year compared to 15 percent of women, and Vassar College accepted 28 percent of men compared to 23 percent of women. Both had more than twice as many female applicants as male applicants.
Few admissions directors would talk about this trend. The Hechinger Report reached out to 28 selective institutions with higher acceptance rates for men; 25 declined or did not reply to requests for interviews.
“It really does sort of go counter to so much of the message that colleges want to send forth, which is, ‘Everyone is welcome … and everybody has a chance of getting in,’ ” said Patrick O’Connor, a former private school counselor.
Colleges “want to be careful,” said independent counselor and former admissions dean Sara Harberson. “They don’t want it to look like they are giving male students an advantage in this process.” But “whether they admit it or not, gender balance is almost always a pretty big institutional priority, because prospective families can see it on tours and students can feel it when they enroll.”
She said recruiters also want to be careful to not discourage women from applying. The bigger the applicant pool, the more selective the institution looks.
Sonya Smith, dean of admission and student financial services at Vassar, said in an email that it considers an applicant’s academic and personal interests and extracurricular activities in addition to grades and rigor of coursework. “Gender is taken into account in this context, along with many other factors,” she wrote.
Because so many more women than men apply to these liberal arts colleges, if an institution wants to have gender balance on campus, “there’s not a lot you can do other than discriminate,” said Charles Deacon, dean of admission at Georgetown University. “You can argue you’re not discriminating because you’re trying to get a balance, but there isn’t much else you can do besides make [gender] a factor.”
While Georgetown has a slightly higher acceptance rate for men than women, Deacon said that it does not consider gender in its review process.
Women now comprise nearly 60 percent of enrollment in universities and colleges and men just over 40 percent, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports. Fifty years ago, the gender proportions were reversed.
This disparity grew wider when the pandemic descended. While enrollment in higher education overall fell 2.5 percent last fall, the decline among men was more than seven times as steep as the decline among women, the research center found. The number of men continued to fall this year more sharply than the number of women at public and for-profit universities.
Now a lecturer at Harvard Law School, Medley said that gender balancing is akin to setting quotas for a particular group of students based on race — a practice the Supreme Court banned in a 1978 decision that otherwise allowed preference to be given to historically underrepresented groups.
“We might admit the male student and wait-list the female student because of wanting to get closer to this sort of gender parity in terms of percentages in the class.”Shayna Medley, former admissions officer at Brandeis University and now a lecturer at Harvard Law School
She said arguments in favor of race-based affirmative action should not be interpreted to give men preference in the admissions process.
“These two things are just completely different given that race-based affirmative action is trying to combat historic discrimination and existing barriers to education for students of color and just furthering a general interest in racial diversity on campus,” Medley said. “Gender balancing, or having this sort of cap on the amount of female students on campus, is not grounded in [that kind] of rationale.”
Many public institutions aren’t allowed to consider gender or race at all, especially in the nine states with affirmative action bans: California, Washington, Florida, Arizona, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and, most recently, Idaho. In states that do allow gender to be considered, “affirmative action jurisprudence says that schools can use these factors as a plus factor to advance diversity interest and combat discrimination, but can’t discriminate on those grounds,” Medley said.
Title IX legislation, passed in 1972, says that no one should be excluded on the basis of gender from participation in any education program receiving federal financial assistance. But private institutions have an exemption that allows them to use gender as a factor in admissions.
O’Connor said that gender is just one thing among many looked at by admissions officers. “There are so many other factors in any given year that sometimes make it less likely that somebody is going to get in,” he said.
Those could include major, geography or high school. “These can all prove to be factors in certain schools that require a balancing act,” O’Connor said.
Another consideration that can affect how many men or women are admitted by a college is who is more likely to enroll. If more women than men are expected to show up on campus, a school might admit more men.
It works the other way, too. Women have an admissions advantage at institutions focused on business and on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, which have historically skewed to be more male. At MIT and the California Institute of Technology, women are twice as likely as men to get in, with acceptance rates for women at around 11 percent, compared to 5 percent for men. Both universities have twice as many men as women applying, but roughly the same numbers of men and women on campus.
Nevertheless, Harberson said the advantage for women applying to STEM or business schools has been waning as the number of women in those fields steadily increases. “I tell female students you can’t rely on listing a certain major anymore as a female to give you that boost. You have to rely on yourself for that,” she said.
Overall, women have higher acceptance rates than men, around 64 percent for women at public four-year institutions, compared with 60 percent for men. At private four-year universities, those figures are 51 percent and 47 percent, respectively, according to 2014-2018 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Admissions officers often cite a 40/60 ratio as a sweet spot for the number of men and women on campus. If either gender goes over 60 percent, it has implications for recruitment.
“At some point — whether that’s 60/40 or beyond — interest in enrolling at any institution could be impacted negatively for all students if that balance disappears,” Tim Wolfe, dean of admissions at the College of William & Mary, said in an email.
As a public institution, William & Mary is an outlier in its higher acceptance rates for men. The college, along with other Washington, D.C.-area schools, found itself under the microscope in 2009 when a federal civil rights probe investigated whether it was discriminating against women in the admissions process. The investigation was dismissed two years later, but its specter still looms.
Last fall, the college admitted 46 percent of male applicants and 40 percent of female applicants. “In terms of the admission process, we don’t separate out, or review students differently, based on gender identification,” Wolfe wrote. “Gender is among the many factors that we consider in trying to best appreciate an applicant’s full context and personal story, and as we shape our overall entering class.”
No one wants to reject a student based on his or her gender, O’Connor said, but at the same time, admissions officers “know that if they tiptoe over that balanced ratio, that has lots of economic and academic implications for the college in the long run.”
Medley challenged the idea that a gender imbalance on a campus is a bad thing.
“We should get more comfortable with the idea that there’s not necessarily a problem just because more women are attending college,” Medley said. “White men have had access to education since higher education institutions were created.”
This story about the advantage for men in college admission was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.