The College Gender Gap

The gender gap at many colleges continues to expand.

In 1960, 35% of all bachelor degrees went to females; by 2010, this percentage had increased to 57%. This is not solely a US anomaly: in all 17 OECD countries the female share of the college population and degrees awarded has exploded. Furthermore, for the foreseeable future, this trend is gaining strength. The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) projects that between now and 2019 female college enrollment will grow 21% while male enrollment will grow by 12%. (This is across all races and cultures throughout the US). Moreover, this gender gap is becoming more pronounced even though there are 800,000 more males than females in the ages 18-24.

Speculations abound to explain the dominance of females in the post-secondary world: boys mature more slowly than girls; girls spend more time on homework; and boys have higher incidences of school arrests and suspensions than girls... In the end, analyses often arrive at the realization that the difference is not about cognitive ability but about effort and engagement. Sadly, there appears no urgency to address this motivation disparity.

How is this gender gap perceived by colleges, and how are they reacting?

The most sensitive to the gender gap are the private liberal arts colleges.  To these schools with enrollment numbers of 2,000 or fewer students, a change of 5% in the gender mix can have dramatic effects on all aspects of the campus: athletic teams, fraternities, classroom dynamics, alumni response (contributions), and campus culture. Vassar College, for example, once a part of the Seven Sisters-the female counterpart to the once all-male Ivy League- is still 60% female. The admissions office is intent on leveling the gender mix, but circumstances are making this challenging: two thirds of the applicant pool is female. Consequently, the college accepted 35% of the male applicants, and 20% of the female.  

According to a 2007 US News and World Report analysis, the admissions rate for women across all colleges, was 13% lower than for men. It’s likely even lower now. In addition to Vassar, Kenyon College (Ohio) has addressed its lopsided gender situation by admitting 41% of its male applicants and 33% of its female; Brown University, to do likewise, accepted 11% of the male, and only 8% of the female; William & Mary with over 7,600 women applicants as compared with 4,400 males, admitted 45% of its male, and only 27% of its female.  

Most of the public universities don’t attempt to manipulate admissions by gender-which, if they tried, would likely engender legal actions. At the University of California, for example, a large portion of the admissions is based on statistics: GPA and standardized test scores. At UCLA, the most selective of the UCs over the last several years, there were far more female applicants, yet it accepted the same percentage of both genders. The recent freshman class contained 800 more females than males.

On the other hand, if you’re female and planning to apply to an engineering school, you have the advantage. While MIT accepted a mere 7% of its male applicants, 15% of its female applicants gained acceptance. At Harvey Mudd, the Claremont engineering/liberal arts college, 48% of female applicants gained admission while only 17% of the male applicants did. Should you glance over the admissions of other engineering colleges and programs, variances in admissions among the genders will likely favor the female applicant.

Possibly the new world order of predominantly female college attendees will confound the more tradition bound colleges. Swarthmore’s Jim Bock asserts liberal arts schools worry deeply about the disequilibrium.  Yet one promising piece of news: on campuses that are predominantly female, both males and females get higher grades. Additionally, female attitudes, which are generally more open to change and argument, prevail—and are likely to benefit both genders. 

In any case, the gender gap is a reality for the current and future college bound students. One might be inclined to bemoan the disparity, but the wise applicant should welcome it and take full advantage of whatever benefits the gap might offer.