Should men receive preferential admission to college?

BlogHer Original Post

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is investigating whether selective colleges have been discriminating against women applicants by admitting less-qualified men in an attempt to maintain a gender balance on campus.  According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, The investigation is being undertaken at the request of commissioner and law professor Gail Heriot, an opponent of affirmative action.

In her initial proposal to the commission, submitted on August 6, Heriot wrote,

Recently, accusations have been made that some selective private, coed, liberal arts schools are discriminating in admissions in to order to maintain what they regard as an appropriate gender balance. Specifically, the accusation is that women applicants are being discriminated against in order to prevent the schools from becoming “too female.” Indeed, some commentators have called this an “open secret” and suggested the same may be occurring at state schools too (where it would be illegal).

Women dominate higher education generally. Approximately 58% of bachelor's degrees and 60% of master's degrees go to women. The dominance of women is particularly felt in community colleges and institutions that are non-selective or only somewhat selective. The reasons for this are complex and controversial, but no doubt part of the reason is that males who have recently graduated from high school are more likely than their female counterparts to prefer the opportunities available to them in the military or in the building trades. Incarceration rates are also higher for men than for women in this (or any) age group.

Privately at least, some college administrators argue that they must discriminate against women or the gender balance at their institutions will become so off-kilter that many of the women they want won't be willing to attend. Colleges will then be unable to attract the female students they want most -or so they fear. Interestingly, this may be a bit of a collective action problem. Once a few lower-ranked liberal arts schools starting giving preferential treatment to men, others feel they must follow suit, since the failure to do so will cause any hold-out school to have a gender ratio that is seriously off-kilter.

The proposal outlines six questions the commission should investigate.  The questions ask whether colleges are giving men preferential treatment in admissions, whether an imbalance of men and women on campus might dissuade women from attending a college, how colleges might attract better-qualified male applicants without giving them preferential treatment, and whether some Department of Education policies might be dissuading schools from putting in place programs that might be more attractive to men.  That last question may seem odd in the context of a decrease in male admissions—why wouldn't schools add more male sports in that case?—but some interpretations of Title IX require schools to spend equal amounts on men's and women's sports, which might prove too costly for some colleges.

The commission has released the names of some, but not all, the colleges it will be investigating, but the commission only has subpoena power within 100 miles of where it holds the hearing, in this case Washington, DC.  The Chronicle reports that

They include colleges in several categories: historically black institutions; private, moderately selective institutions, including both religious and nonreligious ones; private, highly selective institutions; and public ones. Georgetown University, Gettysburg College, the Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Richmond were named at the meeting.

The colleges are chosen to be representative; only the University of Richmond is under suspicion of favoring male applicants.

I'm not going to pretend to have thought through all the ramifications of this case, but I do have some initial, very tentative, thoughts.  Some might argue that because some colleges practice affirmative action based on race or ethnicity to increase the proportion of underrepresented students on campus, these colleges should also be able to practice preferential admissions on behalf of male students when they represent less than 50 percent of the student body.  Practicing affirmative action on behalf of white men, however, is different from practicing it on behalf of people of color because white men have not traditionally faced the same kinds of social and cultural discrimination as have people of color--meaning white boys are more likely than children of color to have had sufficient resources available to them to allow for their success.  (Does this mean all white boys are privileged?  Absolutely not.  But statistically speaking, schools with a majority of children of color are less likely to receive sufficient funding and resources.)

What is Heriot's motivation? She has a history of taking issue with affirmative action policies. A couple years back, olvlzl at Echidne of the Snakes reported on a panel discussion that included Heriot.  She summed up Heriot thusly:

Heriot is a recent appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights based, in my humble opinion, on her being your garden variety, right wing, race baiter and echo of various conservative bromides. The Commissioner didn’t say much that you can’t get the gist of from reading her quite odious group blog. No, you really don’t even have to do that. Imagine what a Bush appointee to the Civil Rights Commission would have to say on the subject of affirmative action and you’ll have the complete picture.

Name-calling aside, Heriot has written a number of blog posts contesting affirmative action based on race and other matters of fairness in university life, including posts on how "holistic" admissions policies are a backdoor way to admit more applicants of color, her uneasiness with some of the ins and outs of test accommodations for students with disabilities, and her opposition to a revival of the Equal Rights Amendment, which includes this discussion from almost two years ago:

Back in 1996, when Proposition 209 passed, there weren’t a lot of affirmative action programs that overtly discriminated against women. I remember only one–a nursing program at a California state university that in the name of diversity gave preference to men interested in nursing. Proposition 209 outlawed it. Today, more than a decade later, 56% of all undergraduates are women. That makes them not just a majority, but a significant majority, particularly at the community college level. Some admissions offices at moderately selective schools are starting to give preferential treatment to men.

Harmless? I am not inclined to think so. But I will blog on that later. All I can say now is that I hope this development makes the leaders of organizations like NOW and the Feminist Majority worry about whether they did the right thing in supporting the University of Michigan in Grutter v. Bollinger and in opposing Proposition 209 and Proposal 2. Next time they get get a chance to think about the issue, they should remember that the group they are seeking to benefit makes up the majority.  And the majority can be abused too.

Regardless of Heriot's politics and motivations, the issue is an interesting one, as many colleges and universities have been arguing for years--and I agree with them--that a diverse student body on a college campus strengthens students' experiences inside and outside the classroom, in part because students may be exposed to a broader spectrum of arguments and beliefs, which can--I've seen it in my classroom--bolster critical thinking skills.  But does a push for diversity necessitarily mean campuses should support an equal balance of men and women?

The proposal raises some good questions, and I'm looking forward to seeing the answers, even though for now their future effect on campus life--through recommendations by the commission, as well as the policies that may develop from those recommendations--remains murky.

What are your thoughts?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.


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