Gender in the College Admissions Process

-By, Isabel Griffith-Gorgati

With college application season in full swing, The Panel wanted to explore a factor that has recently become more prominent to our students. When we consider the factors that affect their acceptance into a college or university, gender doesn’t typically come to mind. A few years ago, Winsor and Belmont Hill engaged in a memorable Panel debate about affirmative action. It probably was not the only time most of us have been a part of or witnessed a discussion about the role of race and ethnicity in college admissions– what does not get talked about nearly as much is the issue of gender dynamics in college admissions. In fact, while researching for this article, I was surprised by how little has been written about this topic.

Back when women comprised a minority of applicants, affirmative action benefitted girls in the college admissions process. Since around the 1970’s, however, the overall numbers of women applying to college in the U.S. have been exceeding those of men. Alex F. ’17 remarked that she has noticed that “girls seem to have to have more activities on their applications because of the higher volume of female applicants” at many institutions. According to The Washington Post, girls are a more generally qualified pool of applicants nowadays; they make up 70 percent of high school valedictorians. Many colleges have had to make the choice between practicing gender-blind admissions—which leads to a skewed gender ratio on campus—or favoring less qualified male applicants over more highly qualified female applicants in order to keep the gender ratio around 1:1. A 2011 Inside Higher Ed survey found that admissions officers were almost four times as likely to say that they accepted men with below average grades and scores than they were to say the same about women applicants.

Of course, the gender dynamics of an applicant pool depend significantly on the type of college. At extremely STEM-focused institutions such as MIT, girls get admitted at higher rates than men because men are typically more drawn to this male-dominated area of study. Izzy M. ’17 commented that she thinks about gender dynamics in college admissions “a little bit, because I’m applying to math programs. There is bias against women in math, but I’m at an advantage because I’m a woman.” On the other end of the spectrum are schools that attract more women like William & Mary and Vassar, where the acceptance rate for men has been 14 or 15 percentage points higher than for women. Although this variation exists between institutions, women are outperforming men in high school and pursuing higher education at higher rates. According to NPR, seven years ago, women were already receiving 60 percent of college degrees. For this reason, colleges have started to accept male students at higher rates to keep a balanced gender ratio on campuses.

What is less clear is whether or not that disadvantage is fair and appropriate. Some may view discrimination against women in admissions as a violation of the principles of Title IX. Drafted in 1972 by the US Department of Education, Title IX states that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In fact, when the act passed in the 1970s,  private colleges ensured that their admissions processes would be exempt from its restrictions, upholding this skewed admissions process. Although some would view these growing gender imbalances as a direct violation of the act, many would argue that both boys and girls want to attend colleges with roughly even gender ratios.

As a Winsor girl applying to college this fall, I am torn on this issue. It frustrates me that women are still fighting for equal pay for equal work at the same time that female out-performance of males in high school creates an imbalance in college acceptance rates. I also, however, take for granted that most college campuses have a relatively balanced gender ratio. What, then, is the best admissions policy when it comes to gender? At an all-girls college preparatory school like Winsor, it’s a question that is worth considering.