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The quiet fight over gender quotas

This year, 60 percent of college applicants will be female. For these women, getting into college is now harder than ever.

While the majority of college applicants are women, the ratio of men to women at many competitive schools remains around 50-50, leading to concerns that schools may be lowering standards for male applicants, and turning away female applicants.

According to Mary Dee Wenniger, editor of the journal Women in Higher Education, the majority of college students are going to be women in 2011 — and it’s not a surprise.

“Young women make stronger college applicants. They have higher GPAs, write better applications, volunteer more, and have fewer behavior problems, to name a few,” she said. “All things being equal, most schools will have more women than men—two women for every man. And some schools don’t like that.”

Some schools, like the College of William and Mary, have adopted, in effect, affirmative action policies for young men.

In a Nov. 2009 op-ed in the Washington Post, Henry Broaddus, Dean of Admissions at William and Mary, defended his admissions policy.

“[C]ollege-bound women overwhelmingly prefer coed institutions,” he wrote. “At some ambiguous tipping point, an institution may begin to appeal to a narrower demographic if it begins to appear more like a single-sex environment.”

Others say gender imbalances create undesirable social dynamics on campus, with a greater proportion of women on campus accelerating hook-up culture. According to some social scientists and people like Richard Whitmire, author of “Why Boys Fail,” when women outnumber men, they compete for the male attention in less than ideal ways.

But those arguments are unconvincing to some, like UCSD Law Professor Gail Heriot.

“This sort of argument is the same one used to discriminate against Jews applying to colleges in the 1920s,” she said. “You know, ‘The Jews don’t want to go to a school with too many Jews.’ That sort of thing, it just doesn’t pan out.”

In 2009, Heriot, an appointee to the US Commission on Civil Rights, began an inquiry into 19 different schools, to assess the scope of any discrimination taking place against female applicants.

“We know that this discrimination is out there,” Heriot said. “Some schools, like Kenyon, the University of Richmond, and the University of Georgia …have basically admitted, publicly, that they will sometimes give priority to male applicants. The point of the study was to figure out how widespread this practice is.”

On March 16th, the US Commission on Civil rights voted (4 to 3) to suspend the investigation, citing a staff memo highlighting problems in data collection.

Professor Heriot calls this complaint a “fig leaf,” stating that the objection to the investigation was its subject, not its methods.

“The problems [they cited] were the kind of problem that turn up in any investigation–they said because some of the schools were not forthcoming with data, our findings would be incomplete,” she said.

Heriot said the commission sent more requests for data than needed, and actually received more data back from schools than expected.

When asked what she thought might be under the “leaf,” Heriot responded, “I think people worry that this study will undermine affirmative action for minorities, so they don’t want to talk about the negative effect it could be having on women.”

Heriot insists that this practice isn’t just bad for women, but also for the men who get a leg up on their way in. She pointed to a study performed by the US Commission on Civil Rights on minorities in the science, math, and engineering majors: “It turned out that affirmative action actually decreases the number of minorities in these fields,” she said. “At schools where the students had received affirmative action, they were more likely to switch into different majors or even drop out altogether than they would at schools where their GPA and SAT scores matched their fellow students.”

“It’s hard to thrive at the bottom of your class,” Heriot added. “We want all students to be successful, and we don’t want admissions officers to handicap them by putting them in places where they won’t thrive.

Kate Havard is a rising senior at St. John’s College. She is a member of the Student Free Press Association.

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