The University of Richmond, like many small liberal arts colleges, has its roots in single-sex education. The campus, which sits on a picturesque 350 acres of woodland a few miles outside the Virginia state capital, was once two schools: Westhampton and Richmond colleges, on opposite sides of a small lake. The campuses merged around the turn of the 20th century, creating the coed institution that exists today. The delicate balance between men and women at Richmond has always been a tricky thing to manage.
These days, the student body is 49 percent male and 51 percent female, a ratio that the college insists is determined by the availability of on-campus housing. Maintaining that equilibrium, however, means rejecting many more female applicants than male ones. In the past decade, female applicants have faced an admissions rate that averages 13 percentage points lower than that of their male peers just for the sake of keeping that girl-boy balance. “From a philosophical standpoint, we’ve really discussed the benefits of keeping it about equal,” says Marilyn Hesser, a senior associate director of admissions at Richmond. “The board of trustees has said that the admissions office can go as far as 55-45 [women to men].” Male and female applicants have test scores that are virtually the same, she says. “Was [the male applicant’s] high school GPA a little lower? Perhaps.”
A thumb on the scale. The University of Richmond is not unique in its effort to keep the number of men and women enrolled roughly equal in the face of a dramatically changing pool of applicants. Nor is it the school where the gap in admissions rates is the most pronounced. Using undergraduate admissions rate data from more than 1,400 four-year colleges and universities that participate in its rankings, U.S. News has found that over the past 10 years many schools have maintained their gender balance by admitting men and women at drastically different rates.
The schools that are most selective-think Harvard and Princeton-have so many applicants and so many high achievers that they maintain balanced student bodies naturally by skimming the cream of the crop. But at other colleges, maintaining gender equity on some campuses appears to require a thumb on the scale in favor of boys. It’s at these schools, including Pomona, Boston College, Wesleyan University, Tufts, and the College of William and Mary, that the gap in admit rates is particularly acute.
What does this mean for applicants? For girls, making the cut might come down to something as simple as the expected field of study. As an admissions officer from a small midwestern liberal arts college puts it: “God help the female English majors who apply to this school.” On the other hand, women hoping to study engineering will find themselves at an advantage at schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which over the past decade has admitted women at a rate that is 17 percentage points higher than the rate for men.
Boys will be boys. Male applicants, meanwhile, are often at an advantage-so much so that college counselors have begun advising some boys to “emphasize their maleness,” says Steve Goodman, a longtime independent college counselor. He encourages male students to submit pictures or trumpet their sports activities-“anything to catch an admissions officer’s eye.”
Some colleges, like Lake Erie College in Ohio and Husson College in Maine, are making extra efforts to attract male applicants by creating football teams. Others are emphasizing hands-on learning and reaching out to all-male high schools. Common recruiting practices like writing personalized notes or having alumni call interested students are not as effective at landing students with a Y chromosome, schools have found.
A word of caution, however: Trying to second-guess which aspect of your application will most appeal is risky. What if the school needs students just like you? What’s especially dangerous is trying to game the system by showing interest in a major only for the better admit rate-feigning interest in the physical sciences if you’re a woman, say. At some schools, if you’re accepted into the engineering school, for example, it’s almost impossible to transfer into the liberal arts college. In the end, counselors and admissions officers say it’s better to be honest on your application and get into a school that wants you rather than conceal your true intentions.
Sensitive topic. Moreover, it’s difficult to gauge how much impact a college’s desire to maintain a balanced student body has on the decision to accept or reject a particular applicant. Schools don’t like to discuss their selection process, and they’re especially sensitive when it comes to preferential treatment. While the Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue of affirmative action for minority students, it has not directly addressed gender targeting in admissions. “There’s no easy answer as to what’s legal and what isn’t legal,” says Marcia Greenberger, copresident of the National Women’s Law Center.
‘Boy gap.’ The reason for lower admissions rates for female students is simple, if ironic: From the early grades on, girls tend to be better students than boys. By the time college admissions come into the picture, many watchers of the “boy gap” agree, it’s too late for boys to catch up on their own. Girls watch less television, spend less time playing sports, and are far less likely to find themselves in detention. They are more likely to participate in drama, art, and music classes-extracurriculars that are catnip for admissions officers. Across the board, girls study more, score better, and are less likely to be placed in special education classes.
Females graduate from high school at a slightly higher rate than men and are more likely to forgo the workforce for an advanced degree. All of these factors help explain why the percentage of women in higher education has been steadily growing: From rough parity in 1980, women made up 57 percent of the 16.6 million American collegegoers in 2006. By 2010, the U.S. Department of Education expects the ratio to be around 60 to 40. In other words, that thumb on the boys’ side of the admissions scale will have to press much harder in the coming years to keep those male dormitories at Richmond fully populated.
At the universities that attract the most applicants, balancing enrollment appears to happen naturally, based on the admissions data. At Harvard University, for example, the pool of more than 22,000 applicants has remained equally divided between men and women, meaning that both sexes are admitted at an equal-if dauntingly low-9 percent. Princeton, Stanford, Rice, Duke, and Yale are similar; ditto for the elite liberal arts colleges such as Amherst, Williams, and Middlebury.
Where girls face the biggest challenge is at small liberal arts colleges like the University of Richmond and Kenyon College in Ohio. An op-ed entitled “To All the Girls I’ve Rejected,” published in the New York Times last year, set the college admissions world atwitter when it outlined the reality of what most officers had been seeing for years. “The fat acceptance envelope is simply more elusive for today’s accomplished young women,” wrote Jennifer Delahunty Britz, the dean of admissions at Kenyon, which, according to the U.S. News data, is not even among the schools that most heavily favor boys in their admissions.
An hour’s drive east of the University of Richmond, the College of William and Mary also is altering its admissions rates to achieve gender balance, if not parity. In the past decade, the school’s portion of women in the undergraduate body has fallen from 60 percent to 54 percent. Overall, because of the rising number of students applying to colleges, the admissions rates for both men and women at William and Mary have plummeted, from 51 percent for men and 43 percent for women in 1997 to 44 and 26 percent in 2006. Over that period, men had an admittance rate an average of 12 percentage points higher than their female counterparts had.
Striving for balance. Colleges contend that their schools are best served by keeping things balanced. “I don’t think that’s an issue of equity; it’s an issue of institutional prerogative [to create] a community that will best serve both the men and the women who elect to be members of that community,” says Henry Broaddus, director of admission at William and Mary. “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.”
Indeed, says sophomore Carrie Bruner, it’s important to have men on campus in and outside the classroom. “Males have perspectives to offer that a woman doesn’t have,” she says. She also says that she and her female classmates do sometimes joke about a shortage of men to take to dances. And indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that once a campus reaches, say, a 60-to-40 split in favor of either gender, the college becomes less attractive to applicants of both sexes. “Frankly, students care about the dating scene on campus, and no one wants to be outnumbered,” says Bari Norman, a former admissions counselor at Barnard College who runs mycollegecounselor.com.
That helps explain why traditionally male-dominated schools are relishing the influx of women. Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., went coed in 1970 and has tried to attract women ever since, a challenge because one of its strengths is its engineering program, a discipline in which women have been historically underrepresented. As the school approached and finally reached gender parity in 2000, its applications from both girls and boys soared.
Nationwide, women fill the majority of places in higher education. And since most colleges are “open admission,” meaning they admit all or nearly all qualified applicants, women have a higher overall admissions rate than men. “Students have very little control over admission in general, and their gender is something that they have no control over,” says Janet Rosier, an independent counselor based in Connecticut. “Worrying about this aspect of an already secretive process will only cause kids more stress.” Sitting in the admissions office at the University of Richmond, Marilyn Hesser agrees. Students, she says, need to follow their hearts in finding the best place for them to live and study. Chasing numbers can be problematic. “We could do more to get applications from men,” she says, “but that would also result in more applications from women.”