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.
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.
Since the early 1980s, when a brief period of parity was reached after generations of male dominance, more girls than boys have applied to college each year; in 2011, 60 percent of college applicants will be women. Girls—sorry, fellas—are by any objective measure more attractive applicants than boys, with higher average GPAs and test scores. They have fewer behavioral problems. They write better application essays. They have a wider range of extracurricular interests. They clean up better for interviews.
On any fairly balanced scale, the acceptance rate for women at selective colleges should be far higher than for men. Instead it’s the other way around. The reason is “affirmative action,” sometimes called preferences, sometimes called quotas—though never publicly. Admissions deans like Britz have placed a thumb on the scale.
This much is generally accepted practice among college admissions deans in the upper tiers of American higher education. But why? If girls are better suited to college, why not let them enter the better colleges at rates equal to their achievements?
Here is where the Legend of 60-40 enters in. Sixty-forty is the ratio of women to men at which, according to admissions lore, the “atmosphere” of a campus changes irreversibly and the school’s reputation passes a point of no return. It becomes known as a “girls’ school” and before you know it . . . there goes the neighborhood.
“Once you become decidedly female,” Britz wrote in her op-ed, “fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive.” Or worse, it becomes attractive to the wrong kind of male. Hubba hubba, in other words. Predation can be a problem. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by the indispensable education writer Richard Whitmire offered anecdotes from the campus of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. JMU refuses to institute gender quotas and as a result is now more than 60 percent female. “What can be seen [on campus] so far is not encouraging,” Whitmire wrote. “Stark gender imbalances appear to act as an accelerant on the hook-up culture”—a reference to the Bonobo-like mating patterns that have lately enlivened social life among America’s budding scholars.
For this reason, the admissions dean of the College of William and Mary has been unapologetic about that thumb of his, which he has firmly planted on the boy side of the scale. “We are, after all, the College of William and Mary,” he has often said, “not the College of Mary and Mary.”
The most selective of the private schools from which the Civil Rights Commission staff requested data, Johns Hopkins and Georgetown, adamantly refused to cooperate with the commission. Title IX of the education amendments to the Civil Rights Act, which outlaws sex discrimination in public colleges and universities, exempts private undergraduate nonprofessional schools—a loophole designed in 1972 to preserve traditionally single-sex colleges, nearly all of which have since become co-ed.
It’s fair to assume that the refusal of Georgetown and Hopkins was on grounds of self-incrimination. Boy quotas are the unofficial but undeniable means by which schools are staving off the dread 60-40, and even where sex discrimination is not explicitly illegal, a few beams of sunlight cast into the cloisters of college admissions offices might act as a disinfectant, as liberal activists like to put it.
Yet the activists have been utterly silent, for reasons we can only guess. There’s been not a peep even from the National Women’s Law Center, which routinely issues press releases with such headlines as “NWLC Files Brief in Supreme Court, Supporting the Women of Wal-Mart in their Class Action Lawsuit” and “House Republican Spending Cuts Devastating to Women, Families and the Economy.” Reached by U.S. News, a spokesman for the American Association of University Women ducked. “We need to help impoverished boys and girls to improve educational outcomes and have equal opportunity,” she said, with stubborn irrelevance.
Whitmire, the education writer, has offered theories of his own to account for the thunderous silence, based on his discussions with feminist lawyers. “Alerting the public that women increasingly dominate college campuses will make it appear women have ‘won’,” he wrote. “And if women have won, why are they still complaining about discrimination in higher education?” Public sentiments like this might endanger more important feminist projects like increasing the number of tenured female faculty and closing campus “wage gaps.” There again, the Democrats on the commission may have simply been responding to the interests of a precious political ally—the vast, impenetrable combine of American higher ed, which is no happier than any other industry to have the feds snooping into its files.
For her part, Heriot is stumped.
“I don’t get it, I really don’t,” she said. She vows to try once more to bring the matter of girl quotas before the commission. “It bothers me that no one is willing to shine a light on this,” she said. “And it bothers me if no one’s bothered that women might be denied admissions on the basis of sex. I’d at least like the commission to produce real facts, real evidence, so we can know for sure.”
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.
Correction: Abigail Thernstrom was originally mistakenly identitfied as a sociologist. She is a political scientist. We apologize for the error.