Syracuse University graduates at the 2012 commencement on May 13, 2012 at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Nate Shron/Getty Images)
The Supreme Court is poised to release its opinion on an affirmative-action case that could forever change the way public colleges and universities consider race in admissions. But even if, as some predict, the justices issue a broad ruling slapping down the use of race in admissions, an open secret in higher education—that many colleges lower their admissions standards for male applicants—remains unchallenged and largely unremarked upon.
For years, the percentage of men enrolled in college has been declining, with women making up nearly 57 percent of all undergrads at four-year colleges last year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While schools are prohibited under the federal Title IX law from discriminating based on gender, some admissions officials have admitted in recent years that male applicants get a leg up from colleges hoping to avoid gender imbalances on campus.
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Jennifer Delahunty Britz, the dean of admissions at the private liberal arts school Kenyon College, was among the first to admit this when she wrote an op-ed titled "To All the Girls I've Rejected" in The New York Times in 2006.
"The reality is that because young men are rarer, they're more valued applicants," she wrote, adding that two-thirds of colleges report that more women than men apply for admission. "What messages are we sending young women that they must, nearly 25 years after the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, be even more accomplished than men to gain admission to the nation's top colleges?"
Delahunty Britz's acknowledgment opened the floodgates, and reporters began looking closely at schools that admitted a much higher percentage of male than female applicants.
Of course, these gaps don't necessarily mean that women are being discriminated against. It's possible that the male applicant pool is better qualified on average, though that's hard to ascertain when colleges generally resist releasing their admissions data.
The University of Richmond, a private liberal arts school, acknowledged in 2009 that it attempts to keep its gender balance at about 50-50, which meant women's admit rate was about 13 percentage points lower than men's over the previous 10 years. Admissions officer Marilyn Hesser told CBS that men and women had about the same standardized test scores, but that male applicants' GPA was lower on average. (The college's admission rate suddenly became more gender neutral the following year, in 2010-2011, when men's acceptance rate was only 3 percentage points higher than women's.)
The same year, the College of William and Mary, a public institution in Virginia, accepted 39.4 percent of its male applicants and 27.2 percent of female applicants. The school's admissions dean, Henry Broaddus, said men have slightly higher standardized test scores but lower GPAs than women, on average.
Broaddus defended the policy, insisting that William and Mary's female students want the college to to be gender-balanced and that colleges in general risk becoming less attractive to both men and women when the gender balance tips too far toward women.
"Even women who enroll ... expect to see men on campus," Broaddus said at the time. "It's not the College of Mary and Mary; it's the College of William and Mary."Read More »from As court prepares affirmative-action decision, softer standards for men go unnoticed