An Indelicate Balance

When Los Angeles-area high school guidance counselors met with college admissions deans recently, a counselor wondered if the deans "read boys differently." The truth was evident, but who would speak up?

One dean, a man, admitted that gender alters perception when seen through the admission lens. Boys may have stumbled along the way more often than girls, and the boys are given a little more latitude. "I said, 'Good for you. You're telling the truth. It's absolutely true,'" said Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon. "So many people are afraid to say it."

Delahunty knows about telling the truth in a very public way. Her seminal op-ed piece on gender bias in college admissions was published in 2006 by the New York Times, and the ripples are still lapping on the media shore. Delahunty is still queried by journalists, and her views are referenced in columns and blogs. She is known by some friends as "Jenny Gender." And she taught a Kenyon course in the American Studies program this academic year called "American Voices," pegged to her column and other essays of social influence.

The op-ed headline was "To All the Girls I've Rejected," and the column linked Delahunty's experience as a dean in the hunt for boys and her experience as a mother whose high-achieving daughter met with some frustration while applying to colleges. She wrote that most of the rejection and wait-list letters sent by Kenyon would be received by young women "just like my daughter." She went on to "apologize for the demographic realities."

That women outnumber men in college in the United States is a given, a trend that reaches back decades. For men, the slope turned slippery between 1969 (59.3 percent male) and 1979 (49.1 percent male). Male enrollment at four-year schools now hovers at about 43 percent.

Overall enrollment at Kenyon today is 53 percent female. The current first-year class tilts female by 55 percent, a number that Delahunty believes will eventually be matched by the total enrollment.

College enrollment has become a bellwether for a reordering of gender status, confusion in the testosterone ranks, and emasculation by irrelevance. The trend is examined by scholars, dissected by pundits, and explored in magazine cover stories, including in the Atlantic ("The End of Men") and Newsweek ("Man Up!"). Even as men still take home higher earnings, prowl the corridors of corporate power, and maintain a significant majority in the United States Congress, the twenty-first century may fulfill the feminist promise. Sisterhood is, indeed, powerful.

The right number of men

Men vs. Women

GPA 3.12 2000-01 GPA 3.29
GPA 3.23 2005-06 GPA 3.4
GPA 3.26 2009-10 GPA 3.42

With power comes pushback. At the level of higher education, the surge of women has led many colleges to seek a sort of indelicate balance, reaching deeper into the pool of male applicants, in turn rejecting high-achieving young women. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission took notice and, in September 2009, decided to investigate possible discrimination against women in college admissions. The commission has sought admissions information from nineteen colleges within a hundred miles of Washington, D.C., and a report is expected in the near future. The Washington Post reported that seven of twelve schools in the Washington region admitted women at a lower rate than men in 2008.

Finding the right number of men can be vexing for admissions officials, who believe a relatively balanced enrollment enhances education and is more attractive to prospective students. An emerging consensus among educators indicates that male students are less motivated than their female counterparts, mature more slowly, and find less success academically.

The task of assembling that next class for Kenyon and any college hinges on variables including the goals of the college, money, and the nature and achievements of the students. "We have many priorities when composing a class," Delahunty said. "Gender balance is not necessarily toward the top, but it is important. Does gender matter? It's the same argument for diversity. A diverse classroom is a much more enriched learning experience."

And what has changed since 2006? "It's gotten worse at Kenyon, and, I imagine, other selective liberal arts schools," Delahunty said. "In the last class, we had nearly 750 more applications from girls." The admit rate was about three percent higher for boys than girls, about double what it was in 2006.

The College does not go to extremes to recruit high school boys but does send an additional letter to boys and pays close attention to the all-male high schools. "We always admit more girls than we do boys. Always," Delahunty said. "There are more girls in our pool. The most qualified students in our pool are often female."

To Peyton Chapman '88, the academic success of girls at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon, where she is the principal, comes with a price. Her students are high achievers, and, according to U.S. News and World Report, Lincoln is among the top one hundred international baccalaureate schools in the country. "Our girls are outperforming our boys," she said. "We have the data." And she has seen the well-qualified female student rebuffed by the college of her choice and the well-qualified male student embraced.

Women have won 71 percent of Fulbright fellowships since 2004.

Since 2001, 54 percent of Summer Science Scholars have been women.

"Girls are excelling," she said. "I worry about our girls more than our boys. The type-A overachievers are piling on too much. Maybe the boys are more balanced, a little healthier. Boys are very capable. You just might not see it in their grades."

High school boys with academic and cultural advantages may let their numbers slip, but boys in tougher environments have found themselves outside the equation altogether. In the gritty world of East Flatbush, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, the problems are different. Ilona Williamson '01 is the guidance counselor at Arts & Media Preparatory Academy, in the working-class neighborhood beset by gang activity. "One of the biggest problems my kids face is that they need money, and they need it now," Williamson said. "It's hard for them to see the benefits of ... going to college. There's also this pervasive idea that it's not 'cool' to succeed in school, and this is predominantly a male issue."

In addition, the push toward female empowerment, accelerated by extracurricular programs aimed at girls, and the lack of adult male role models leave boys "in dire need of support."

Effort is the issue for Jennifer DiLisi-Newton '00, guidance counselor at Padua Franciscan High School in Parma, Ohio, where most students move on to college. "That innate or inner desire to do well, I see it more from the girls," she said. "I just don't think the boys are internally motivated by grades and numbers. They don't really care. Sometimes, that seems to be a real source of frustration with the parents."

"Get with it"

Tom Mortenson, an Iowa-based higher education policy analyst, understands the frustration. His daughter is a doctoral student; his two sons did not complete college.

He believes the economic climate since World War II has gradually marginalized men, making learning new skills a greater priority even as men fall by the education wayside. "The world has changed, and men haven't," he said. "That's the problem. Get with it, guys."

The erosion of goods production and industrial employment, and the rise of the services-providing industry, has tended to leave men grasping for self-definition, Mortenson said. "My own view is that the adult male identifies himself based on the work he does. Men have to become productively engaged or they become dangers to themselves, to the people around them, and to the larger society. This issue cannot be ignored.

"Boys are not taking education seriously, and the girls are. We have to get the boys engaged in learning, so that when they become adults, if they ever do ... the adaptation that is required in this economy becomes less traumatic."

The primary and middle-school models are often "boring" for boys, and many are uncomfortable in the "controlled environment" of a classroom that is more girl-friendly. "It's not just maturity levels," Mortenson said. "It has to do with language skills. It has to do with activity levels." Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with special education needs and more likely to be held back a year. Among those in high school with learning disabilities, 73 percent are boys.

Of the students elected to Phi Beta Kappa in the five academic years from 2004-05 to 2009-10, 69.6 percent were women.

In 2009, 66 percent of high school boys enrolled in college while 73.8 percent of high school girls enrolled. And more women finish the job. Women earned 57.4 percent of bachelor's degrees in 2007. In 2008-09, women, for the first time, topped men in doctoral degrees, including 70 percent of degrees in health sciences and 51 percent in biological and agricultural sciences.

A 2006 national survey of first-year students showed that men spent more time exercising and playing sports, watching television, partying, and playing video games than women. First-year women spent more time in student clubs, doing volunteer work, and studying than did men.

"We're sort of in this together," Mortenson said. "While women can rejoice at their successes in education and in careers, we're now graduating 230,000 more women than men. These women are not going to find educated men to marry. I think these well-educated, hard-working, busy women are going to have a tough time marrying down in education. For most of us, marriage is a partnership, and women have always wanted to at least talk about equity, but what happens when your husband is laid off much of the time?"

The triple bind

If men are faltering, women understand they must still make up ground to reach the same level of success enjoyed by the opposite sex, said Laurie Finke, professor of women and gender studies. "I know a lot of the arguments in the press are that men are being left behind," Finke said. "The fact is that women have to work harder. What do you have to do to get where you want to go?"

From January 2008 to January 2010, 450 students were found responsible for a violation of College rules of conduct. Of those, 64 percent were male. Sixty-four of the 450 were recidivists, and 71.9 percent of the recidivists were male.

Kenyon Professor of Psychology Sarah Murnen believes that gender differences in the context of learning are, in general, exaggerated, but she noted that girls tend to mature faster than boys and that includes language learning.

The elementary classroom, she said, is geared more for girls. "We tell girls that reading is something that they should like to do and they should expect to do," she said. "And if you look at the books available for young readers, for boys, if you're not interested in sports or scary stuff, there's not a lot out there. There are a lot of books available for girls."

At Kenyon, a stereotype has taken hold that the "average woman is going to be a better student than the average man," she said. "You don't want to rely on those stereotypes, but we know the test scores are better.

"I am concerned about boys, but I think there still is the story about what is happening with girls," Murnen said. Women's educational achievement is rising along with more professional opportunities, but lurking in the slipstream is a threat to mental health. "As a society, we haven't really changed men's roles to the same extent that we have women's roles," Murnen said. "They've changed a little bit in terms of men taking care of children and things like that, but not nearly to the extent that women's roles have changed."

Women, she said, face the so-called "triple bind"—meeting the expectations of high academic and career achievement, fulfilling traditional female social and domestic roles, and coping with an "increased emphasis on appearance."

"I think we should expect more from boys and men in this society. I really do," Murnen said. "I think we put a lot of pressure on women. Why aren't we on men? I think, in general in America, we could all use a little more balance."

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