What If Colleges Had Lower Standards for Boys to Achieve Gender Balance?

Earlier this week, NPR’s Claudio Sanchez reported that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is taking a year to investigate college admissions, to find out if admissions departments are discriminating in favor of boys to achieve gender balance. This investigation will start with a subpoena for admissions records from a dozen (unnamed) public and private universities. They’re unlikely to find any overt discriminatory policies; the question is, will they be able to find a pattern that is itself evidence of discrimination against female applicants.

It’s quite clear that in the current educational system, girls are outpacing boys when it comes to higher education. Boys are now only 46% of the total college enrollment, and it gets worse the higher the level of attainment – female students now earn 60% of the bachelor’s degrees. (Interestingly, this gender split is not there yet for Hispanics, where the boys in college still outnumber the girls. The imbalance is worst among Blacks, and it’s almost as bad for Asians.) Also, one shouldn’t misunderstand the data. It’s not clear that boys are doing worse than in the past (as is commonly misreported), it’s just that girls are doing so much better. As Ashley wrote last week, overall college enrollment is higher today than it’s ever been in history.

What will make it more complicated for the Commission on Civil Rights is the tie-breaker phenomenon. As yet, I doubt any colleges need to admit under-qualified boys to achieve gender balance. Rather, because there is such an oversupply of applicants, there are more than enough girls and boys who meet most college’s SAT and GPA standards (there’s just a lot more girls). Admissions officers can basically let gender be the tiebreaker. Their incoming freshman boys won’t be noticeably behind the girls, just that more girls on the bubble end up rejected.

Why do colleges want balanced gender, other than it’s traditional? Well, what some colleges are finding is that when they tick up to 60% girls, high school boys stop applying there. Why they’re doing so is unclear, but the consequence isn’t: some schools will suddenly have very few boys at all. That tipping point isn’t very far off for a lot of colleges.

Now, to be clear, it is currently illegal under Title IX to discriminate against girls. And also, this is not the same as past affirmative action admission preferences for Blacks and Hispanics. (The difference is that boys have never been historically and overtly discriminated against; all affirmative-action policies [whether you agree with them or not] were sanctioned on the argument that a group was not only numerically underrepresented, but had historically been victims of policy-based prejudice.)

But just for the purposes of argument, let’s say – entirely hypothetically – that the law was changed. What if colleges decided preserving some gender balance was so important to their mission that they started having slightly lower standards for boys than girls. Either because they wanted to prevent becoming female-only campuses, or they just wanted to make sure boys got the benefit of higher education.

My question to our readers is, how would you feel? The following questions all come to mind:

  • How bad would the imbalance have to get before you felt such policies had any merit?

  • As a man, how would you feel if you were unsure you really got in on your qualifications?

  • As a woman, would you have any sympathy towards boys, or would such policies only create antipathy? What would happen to gender-relations on campus (and in their lives thereafter)?

  • How imbalanced towards women would some campuses have to get before many girls started reacting like boys, and stopped applying there?

I know many of you will say that the current educational system has discriminated against boys, especially in this era of budget cuts. School districts that have cut gym, sports, voc-tech, recess, music and art are lopping off the few things that actually keep many boys emotionally involved in school. Girls need all those activities too, but they may not lose interest in school to the same extent (we really don’t know). But maybe a change in college admissions policies would finally highlight this problem, so dramatically, that some pioneering high school districts would finally do something about it?

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