Gender in the Admissions Game

In an influential op-ed essay, Kenyon's admissions dean confronts a challenging reality

Jennifer Delahunty Britz likes to talk about opening up the "black box" of admissions. Britz, who is Kenyon's dean of admissions and financial aid, feels that colleges should be more forthright about the issues that make the admissions process difficult, both for applicants wondering about their chances and for institutions striving to shape an incoming class.

This spring, Britz sparked a good deal of discussion in higher education circles and the media when she opened the box on one of those issues: the demographic reality that, nationwide, more women than men are applying to college. In an essay published on the op-ed page of the New York Times, Britz discussed the importance to colleges of maintaining gender balance, and the troubling consequence--that "the fat acceptance envelope is simply more elusive for today's accomplished young women."

Britz's essay, headlined "To All the Girls I've Rejected," ran in the March 23 edition of the Times--a week before most applicants around the country started receiving decisions from colleges. The essay emerged from Britz's own experience as the parent of a daughter who had just been wait-listed by a college despite strong qualifications, and who naturally wondered why. "She is a smart, well-meaning, hard-working teenage girl," wrote the admissions dean, "but in this day and age of swollen applicant pools that are decidedly female, that wasn't enough."

"Today," she wrote, "two-thirds of colleges and universities report that they get more female than male applicants, and more than 56 percent of undergraduates nationwide are women." At Kenyon, more than 55 percent of the applicants for the Class of 2010 were female. Britz discussed the resulting struggles of the College's admissions officers, who in marathon sessions look at applicants individually, weighing factors ranging from high school grades and SAT scores to extracurricular activities and leadership experiences.

"The elephant that looms large in the middle of the room," she wrote, "is the importance of gender balance," a factor that "matters in ways both large and small on a residential college campus." Colleges find that if they reach a "tipping point," where 60 percent or more of their enrolled students are female, they are perceived as "decidedly female"--and then "fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive."

Kenyon received a record-high 4,248 applications this year. Early decision applications went up 28 percent, another record, and applications from students of color rose by 6 percent. The College admitted 1,370 students, just over 32 percent. The admission rate this year was 31.7 percent for women, 33 percent for men. Kenyon's student body is approximately 53 percent female, 47 percent male.

Britz's op-ed piece, which was reprinted by a number of other newspapers, generated editorials, columns, reports, and letters. Britz herself received hundreds of e-mail messages, many praising her for openly discussing a problem that educators have been tracking for years. "Your op-ed piece," wrote one parent who works in college counseling, "may well end up being the catalyst in bringing the issue of the declining numbers of men in higher education fully into the sunshine."

That openness was one reason for writing the essay, says Britz. "We shouldn't be afraid to be honest about difficult issues, from early decision, to test scores, to gender balance. I hope that my essay contributes to a national conversation about how we, as educators and parents, can do what's best for today's young men and women."

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