Are Colleges Discriminating Against Girls?

Last Updated Nov 3, 2009 4:04 PM EST

Are liberal arts colleges discriminating against girls?

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has launched an inquiry to find out. The commission plans to investigate whether some liberal arts colleges are rejecting too many qualified female applicants.

Why would colleges do this? Because administrators fear that if the percentage of girls on their campuses grows too large, boy applicants will disappear.

I remember learning about this phenomenon back in 2006 when I read a New York Times op-ed piece that the admission director at Kenyon College wrote. Jennifer Delahunty Britz lamented that the "standards for admission to today's most selective colleges are stiffer for women than men.''

At the time, my daughter was a high school junior and the confession made me even more paranoid about her college admission chances. (As it turned out, I overreacted.)

I have mixed feelings about the investigation by the commission, which doesn't have any enforcement power in this area.

While I think it's a shame that women at high selective schools can be at a disadvantage, I can also appreciate that liberal arts colleges desire a good mix of males and females on their campuses. It's a trickier task to achieve gender balance since about 58% of college students are now female.

Frankly, colleges are making difficult admission decisions every year about all sorts of applicants including first-generation students, athletes, musicians, rich students, kids needing lots of financial aid and applicants from distant states. It's truly an art to assemble a freshmen class.

What also makes me leery of this investigation is that critics are suggesting that the initiative is a sneaky way of prodding liberal arts colleges into offering more men's sports.

If the civil rights commission is truly interested in gender disparity, why isn't it also examining the admission practices of private universities that specialize in science and engineering? These universities are deluged with applications from boys. And that's why I'm always telling the parents of smart teenage girls that their odds of admission are so much greater at schools like MIT and Carnegie Mellon because, unlike liberal arts colleges, these schools desperately want girls.

MIT, for instance, accepted 8.7% of boys during the 2008-09 school year and 19.3% of girls. Carnegie Mellon accepted 34.8% of boys and 42.5% of girls. Even I was shocked at the tremendous advantage that girls enjoy at Harvey Mudd College, a highly selective engineering school in Southern California. Harvey Mudd recently accepted 29.6% of males and 53% of the women applicants.

Stay tuned if you're interested in playing the gender card. In my next post, I will share how you can find gender statistics on any college or university in the country.

Acceptance numbers image by Claudecf. CC 2.0.