Commission Investigating Role Of Gender In College Admissions

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is beginning an investigation to determine if liberal arts colleges are more likely to admit male students in an effort to maintain gender balance in their student populations.

Inside Higher Ed reported earlier this month that the commission agreed to look into the matter at a number of colleges, primarily in the Washington, D.C. area, but the group declined to name specific institutions. While private undergraduate colleges have the legal right to consider gender in admissions, the commission intends to determine how widespread the practice is.

"We hope to start a conversation on how to deal with it," said Gail Heriot, one of the group's commissioners and a law professor at the University of San Diego, who was quoted by U.S. News & World Report.

The Washington Post reports, for example, that at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, applications from females are about double the amount received from males. In 2008-9, approximately 29 percent of female applicants were admitted, compared to about 43 percent of male applicants.

Henry Broaddus, dean of admissions at the college, told the Washington Post that the issue is not about equity; rather, it is about an institution's desire to create a diverse student population that includes both men and women. The Post noted that Broaddus had been quoted as saying that "Even women who enroll. . .expect to see men on campus. . . . It's not the College of Mary and Mary; it's the College of William and Mary."

U.S. News concurred that many selective institutions have admitted male and female applicants at vastly different rates in order to maintain gender balance. The University of Richmond in Virginia, for example, has in the past decade been much more likely to admit men over women. U.S. News reports, however, that last year the school admitted 40 percent of women and 38 percent of men who applied.

The gender balance at some colleges can be influenced by the programs they offer. U.S. News notes that Illinois Wesleyan University has schools in art, music, theater, nursing, and a certification program in elementary education--all of which very likely contributes to the fact that 58 percent of the students are women.

But even in schools where gender balance is maintained in the overall student body, discrepancies are likely to be found among specific majors. The Tufts Daily, the student publication at Tufts University in Massachusetts, notes that particularly notable gender discrepancies can be seen in subjects such as art history, where only five out of 57 majors are male; computer science, where eight out of 50 majors are female; and child development, which includes only 15 males out of 107 majors. Nevertheless, the school--which is known to be one of the nation's most selective--reported only slightly more female than male students in 2007.

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