America: The Land Of Unequal Educational Opportunity

At a dinner party this weekend, I was listening to a mother of two fret about how much tougher it was last year for her soon-to-be college freshman daughter to gain admission to a decent school than it would be next spring for her son, who will be a high school senior in the fall.

I've heard all the stories about second-tier liberal arts institutions tilting heavily female these days (to wit, "Where the Boys Aren't-Liberal Arts Schools"). But it wasn't until U.S. News & World Report ran this week's story "Admittedly Unequal" that the issue crystallized for me.

Indeed, when it comes to college admissions, testosterone is the gift that keeps on giving.

U.S. News reveals that while Harvard still rejects males and females in equal percentages, as do many of the Ivy League schools, most of the nation's second-tier liberal arts institutions do not. The College of William and Mary, for example, accepts only 26 percent of female applicants but gives a thumbs up to 44 percent of the young men who apply.

Is this good or bad for women? The answer is "yes." By that, I mean it's awful that it's become so tough for girls to get into good colleges. By the same token, smart girls don't want to go to colleges that tilt 60 percent female any more than they want to go to lower quality schools. It's a Hobson's choice.

Why is it so much tougher for girls (and boys) to get into good schools than it was for their parents and grandparents? U.S. News attributes the change to the fact that "more students are applying."

Yes, but there are two reasons for that. First, the U.S. population has swelled from some 205 million in 1970 to more than 300 million today. There's still only one Harvard. And the number of liberal arts colleges isn't growing. Second, when I went to college, the share of Americans getting a B.A. was roughly 25 percent. Now, 1 in 3 Americans goes to college.

By Bonnie Erbe