Getting Into College: Playing the Gender Card

My daughter was a junior in high school when I read an op-ed piece in The New York Times that was written by a mother, whose daughter was upset that she had been waitlisted at one of the five colleges on her list.

The essay grabbed my attention because the mother was hardly the average parent, who rails against the inanity of the college admissions process. The author happened to be the dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College, a prestigious institution in Gambier, OH.

What made me panic was the mournful acknowledgement by Jennifer Delahunty Britz that admissions officers at Kenyon and many other schools are rejecting wonderfully accomplished girls simply because they are girls. And the reason? Frankly, there are just too many of them. Females now represent more than 56% of the nation’s college undergraduate.

College administrators are frightened of letting the gender divide grow too wide on their campuses. Many of them believe that the tipping point is reached when women make up 60% or more of the student body. When that happens female applicants will sometimes look for campuses with a closer ratio of men and women. And teenage boys will cross these male-lite schools off their list because they don’t want to be too outnumbered. Or at least that is the fear.

Some admissions offices are trying to bring the numbers back to equilibrium by giving boys a break. At the same time that schools are rejecting qualified girls, they are embracing male candidates who can thank their Y chromosomes for their admission letters.

It’s not tough finding schools where girls have a harder time winning over the admissions decision makers. The University of Richmond in Virginia, for instance, has manipulated the admissions process so that the gender breakdown of its incoming class of freshman class is very close. The University of Richmond’s acceptance rate for boys was recently nearly 44% versus 37.1% for girls. Swarthmore College, an elite liberal arts college, recently accepted 21.2% of its male applicants, but just 15.2% of the women.

The news for teenager girls isn’t all bleak. They may enjoy a competitive advantage if they apply to schools that are overpopulated with men. These, of course, are usually the schools which are best known for their engineering programs and other technical degrees. In its latest admission figures, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology accepted 22.3% of women, but just 9.7% of men. Carnegie Mellon University recently accepted 31.6% of its male applicants and 37.5% of the women.

What should you do, now that you know the role that gender may play in admissions? Look at gender disparities not only when contemplating your child’s chances of getting into a particular school, but also of his or her chances of receiving merit money or a better need-based financial aid package. A school that is desperately seeking more boys or girls could be more generous with its scholarships to those who check the right gender box on their application.

It should be easy to find out what a school’s admission track record is for each sex. Just look at a school’s annual Common Data Set, which is a compilation of a variety of institutional statistics that includes how many applicants of each gender apply to the school and how many are accepted. Lots of colleges and universities post their Common Data Set on their web sites. A quick way to find the numbers is to Google the name of the school and Common Data Set. You can also hunt for the data on a school’s web site or just ask the school for a copy.

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