The Magazine

The Quotas Everyone Ignores

Why universities are quietly favoring white males once again.

Mar 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 27 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Anyone who clings to a belief in the inevitability of human progress might want to contemplate the latest trend in college admissions. After a half-century of battles over racial and gender preferences for URMs (admissions-speak for “underrepresented minorities,” a term that has traditionally comprised nearly anyone who isn’t a white male), colleges and universities have boldly embarked on a policy of affirmative action preferences for .  .  . white males. It’s like old times.

The Quotas Everyone Ignores

Before the deluge: college women, 1970s

Few admissions deans like to talk about their latest innovation in recruitment, understandably enough. Less understandably, the United States Commission on Civil Rights decided earlier this month it didn’t want to talk about it either. And even harder to figure, women’s rights organizations are staying mum too.

By a vote of four to three, the commission shelved a proposal by one of its Independent members, Gail Heriot, to analyze and publish data that might answer this question: “Are private and public liberal arts schools with somewhat selective admissions discriminating against women—and if so, how heavy a thumb is put on the scale against them?” With a Republican majority, commission members had initially voted to study the question in 2009, and since then staffers have been trying to gather admissions data from 19 schools in the Washington, D.C., area—Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Richmond, and others. 

Recently, however, the commission has been in the hands of a de facto Democratic majority thanks to a Republican appointee, political scientist Abigail Thernstrom, who frequently votes with the Democrats. When the staff presented its admittedly provisional and incomplete figures to the commissioners, they shut down the project altogether and voted not to allow the admissions numbers to be made public. 

The investigation was shuttered, said one of the Democratic commissioners, because the data were “inadequate or perhaps faulty.” Releasing the numbers, the commissioner said, might result in the public arriving at “misleading conclusions.” 

For her part, Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego and a longtime critic of preferences in admissions, said the move was a “travesty.”

“This wasn’t about the data,” she said in an interview later. “There were problems with the data but they weren’t insurmountable. .  .  . This was about politics.”

But the politics are very odd. -Heriot, a congressional appointee to the commission whose views lean right, might be thought by the usual ideological taxonomy to be reluctant to press an investigation into wholesale discrimination against girls. On the other hand, the project should have been meat-and-’taters to the Democrats—a chance to expose a concerted effort by large, wealthy, unaccountable institutions to deny an education to qualified women purely on the basis of their sex. 

Among college admissions professionals, it has been a barely concealed secret for several years that such an effort is underway at many, if not most, selective schools. The secret became public in 2006 when the admissions dean at Kenyon College, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, published an op-ed in the New York Times. Never underestimate the anger of a parent whose kid didn’t get into the right school. Britz’s daughter had just been wait-listed at a college that mom assumed she would glide into, and mom, being in the business herself, said she knew why. 

“The fat acceptance envelope is simply more elusive for today’s accomplished young women,” Britz wrote. She offered an anecdote from her own experience, about a recent applicant to Kenyon. The girl was admirable in every respect but for her middling SAT scores. Britz finally decided to admit her, but it was a close thing. The kid should have been born a boy. 

“Had she been a male applicant,” Britz wrote, “there would have been little, if any, hesitation to admit.” The threshold for boys is lower than for girls, not only at Kenyon but at other schools too. Boys, she explained simply, are “more valued applicants.” 

Britz’s op-ed loosed a flurry of journalism—editors never tire of college admissions stories—much of it summarized the following year in an excellent exposé by U.S. News and World Report’s Alex Kingsbury. A raft of prominent schools, including Pomona, Tufts, the College of William and Mary, and Boston College, were accepting boys at a far higher rate than female applicants—boys with lower test scores and lower grade point averages than their female rivals. William and Mary, for instance, accepted 40 percent of the boys who applied in 2006 and only 26 percent of the girls. 

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