The Magazine

Where The Boys Aren't

The gender gap on college campuses

Jan 2, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 16 • By MELANA ZYLA VICKERS
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Here's a thought that's unlikely to occur to twelfth--grade girls as their college acceptances begin to trickle in: After they get to campus in the fall, one in four of them will be mathematically unable to find a male peer to go out with.

At colleges across the country, 58 women will enroll as freshmen for every 42 men. And as the class of 2010 proceeds toward graduation, the male numbers will dwindle. Because more men than women drop out, the ratio after four years will be 60--40, according to projections by the Department of Education.

The problem isn't new-women bachelor's degree--earners first outstripped men in 1982. But the gap, which remained modest for some time, is widening. More and more girls are graduating from high school and following through on their college ambitions, while boys are failing to keep pace and, by some measures, losing ground.

Underperformance in education is no longer a problem confined to black males, Hispanic males, or even poor whites. In 2004, the nation's middle--income, white undergraduate population was 57 percent female. Even among white undergraduates with family incomes of $70,000 and higher, the balance tipped in 2000 to 52 percent female. And white boys are the only demographic group whose high school dropout rate has risen since 2000. Maine, a predominantly white state, is at 60--40 in college enrollment and is quickly reaching beyond it. There are now more female master's degree--earners than male, and in 10 years there will be more new female Ph.D.s, according to government projections. American colleges from Brown to Berkeley face a man shortage, and there's no end in sight.

Yet few alarm bells are ringing. In the early 1970s, when the college demographics were roughly reversed at 43 percent female and 57 percent male, federal education laws were reformed with the enactment in 1972 of Title IX, a provision that requires numerical parity for women in various areas of federally funded schooling. Feminist groups pushed the Equal Rights Amendment through the House and Senate. Universities opened women's studies departments. And the United Nations declared 1975 the International Year of the Woman. The problem was structural, feminists never tired of repeating: A system built by men, for men, was blocking women's way.

Today's shortage of men, by contrast, is largely ignored, denied, or covered up. Talk to university administrators, and few will admit that the imbalance is a problem, let alone that they're addressing it. Consider the view of Stephen Farmer, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill, where this year's enrollment is only 41.6 percent male. "We really have made no attempt to balance the class. We are gender blind in applications, very scrupulously so."

Why the blind devotion to gender--blindness? Because affirmative action for men is politically incorrect. And at universities receiving federal funding like UNC, it's also illegal. "My understanding of Title IX is that an admissions process that advantages men would be very difficult to defend," Farmer says.

The recent history at the University of Georgia, with its male enrollment of 42 percent, explains the situation further. In 2001, a federal appeals court struck down the university's use of gender and race criteria to try to boost its black, male numbers in undergraduate admissions. Three white women sued the school after being rejected, arguing they'd have gotten into the University of Georgia if they had been black men. The appeals court agreed with a lower court's finding that the admissions process in place at the time violated Title VI (race equity) and Title IX (gender equity) by "intentionally discriminating against them based on race and gender."

It didn't even take a court ruling to cause Brandeis University, which is 46 percent male, to abandon its lame effort to attract more men. A few years ago it offered free baseball caps to the first 500 male undergraduate applicants. Brandeis's new dean of admissions, Gil Villanueva, says "things were looking pretty low on the male end and so people said let's give it a shot and see what happens." Evidently not much-the promotion was never repeated. Says Villanueva, "We have no special recruitment plan for males. We are very much gender blind." He says the administrators won't worry about the gender balance unless "all of a sudden our applicant pool is 75 percent female."

Boston University, 40.8 percent male at the undergraduate level, shows even less official concern. The imbalance is a national trend that begins with fewer men graduating from high school and applying to college, says spokesman Colin Riley. "We can't do something about the pool if they're not applying."