At what point to weight the odds?

February 25, 2005

Women outnumber men on campus on both sides of the Atlantic. Is such an imbalance a threat to diversity and, if so, is affirmative action the answer?

A lack of male students worries US institutions, but positive discrimination is a minefield, says Stephen Phillips

Michael Truschke is watching enrolment at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, like a hawk.

"We're on the brink of having to make some major strategic decisions," says Truschke, Pepperdine's admissions director. "We're getting 70 per cent female applications - it's making it a challenge to get the balance we want." Pepperdine's enrolment is 58 to 59 per cent female. "But if we went north of 60 per cent, that would be a call to action to level things out," Truschke says.

This could mean giving men an edge in admissions to boost diversity. "We don't draw a line in the sand on grades and test scores. We consider other variables, and gender might be one."

As the number of male students falls, what has hitherto been confined to a little judicious tinkering by some US universities aimed at boosting their male intake could develop into something more drastic, experts say.

Men comprised 44 per cent of US undergraduates and 42 per cent of graduate students in 2000, the most recent year tracked, although they make up 51 per cent of the general population. Among minorities, the deficit is more pronounced. An American Council on Education study found that just one third of black students were male in 2000.

It's a dramatic reverse from a generation ago. In 1970, men represented 58 per cent of US undergraduates and 61 per cent of graduate students.

The situation reflects the strides taken by women to turn around decades of underrepresentation in higher education, but also perhaps the fact that men may be going backwards.

The proportion of 18 to 24-year-old women attending university doubled from 19.2 to 38.4 per cent from 1967 to 2000. The proportion of men declined from 33.1 per cent to 32.6 per cent.

One reading is that entry-level jobs in trades, technical and manual work, which traditionally attract more males, don't demand post-secondary qualifications; while those, such as service industries, that draw females, increasingly do.

But some observers point to a malaise among boys in school. Male school-leavers have fallen further behind females in reading proficiency - from 10 points to 16 in US-wide tests between 1992 and 2002 - and in writing, from 19 points in 1998 to 24 in 2002. In the past decade, females have closed the gap on males in mathematics, but men have pulled ahead in science, though their lead is very small.

William Pollack, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, blames the testing of very young children. He says it harms boys, who in terms of development tend to trail girls by up to 14 months.

Boys represent 73 per cent of those diagnosed with learning disabilities in secondary school. They are three times more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to the US public health agency the Centers for Disease Control. Pollack says this reflects a pathologisation of their behaviour. "ADHD is a genuine condition, but the description of symptoms - not listening to what an adult says, being (disruptive) and disturbing others - fits many boys' behaviour."

He also cites a dearth of male teachers. Men make up only 21 per cent of teachers, a 40-year low. Boys, particularly those from low-income communities where many children grow up without a father, lack positive male role models, Pollack says.

Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute, a neoconservative think-tank, says girl-friendly reading material and "feminised" classrooms are demotivating boys.

Whatever the reasons, universities are beginning to worry about the gender gap.

"When we (discuss) diversity, most commentators talk about race and ethnicity, but the most basic balance is gender," says Barmak Nassirian, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Louis Hirsh, admissions director at the University of Delaware, says:

"Gender comes into play at the margins. When you look at applications that could go either way, if the applicant is male that may be a reason for tilting to the side of 'yes'."

Some institutions may be taking things further. Kevin Quinn, secondary vice-president at the American School Counsellors Association and career guidance counsellor at South Kingston High School in Wakefield, Rhode Island, says: "(Colleges) don't come out and say, 'we want males,' but that's who they're targeting."

Tom Mortenson of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunities in Higher Education adds: "Some colleges are practising affirmative action, but it's difficult to document because no one wants to get sued." The University of Georgia dropped its points-based admissions system that favoured males after it was successfully challenged in court in 1999.

Privately funded institutions such as Pepperdine may have greater leeway than public ones, and the gender imbalance is particularly acute at private liberal arts colleges.

When Robert Massa became vice-president for enrolment at Pennsylvania's Dickinson College six years ago, he made it a priority to boost male enrolment from 36 per cent. Today, the student body is 46 per cent male, due partly to a decision to give the same weight in admissions to standard aptitude test results, where males typically score higher, as grade point average, where females shine.

At the University of California, Berkeley, Richard Black, vice-president for admissions, is wary of tampering with admissions criteria. Berkeley, along with other public campuses in California, has been gender-blind since 1996 when a state edict outlawed considering gender or race in admissions.

But Wayne Siglers, undergraduate admissions director at the University of Minnesota, says the US Supreme Court's landmark 2003 ruling upholding race-conscious admissions at the University of Michigan may offer public campuses outside California latitude on gender, allowing it to be a factor.

Minnesota, America's second-largest campus, is "beginning to focus" on the male student deficit, Siglers says. Of its 32,474 undergraduates, 15,317 are men.

Many institutions are mounting outreach efforts courting prospective male students to boost the applicant pool.

Interest from recruiters has never been higher at St Augustine High School, a boys' school in San Diego, California, says college counsellor Nancy Kane. "We're hearing from (places) we've never heard from before."

Campuses are also becoming more conscious of the image they project, says Bruce Pochs, admissions dean at Pomona College, near Los Angeles. Several years ago, he leafed through a college calendar bound for schools. "Every page was just women, no men," he recounts.

At Dickinson, Massa posted prospectuses to 20 per cent more males than females. In promotional material, the emphasis was shifted to science subjects and sports. Pastels were replaced with bold colours.

Such efforts sail close to positive discrimination, Hirsh says. "Sexism is still real. Making assumptions about gender leaves you open (to allegations of bias)." And university faculties are still male-dominated.

Leslie Annexstein of the American Association of University Women says talk about declining male enrolment needs to be qualified. She notes that men outnumber women at many Ivy League campuses.

Suggestions that boys' problems are evidence of innate cognitive differences between the sexes have raised hackles. The president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, provoked outcry and a confrontation with staff when he suggested that greater male success in science was genetically hard-wired.

Sensitivities surrounding this issue make some academics cautious about discussing how shifting gender dynamics may be affecting subjects.

Nevertheless, Myra Strober, a professor of education at Stanford University, says there have been many positive results of increased female enrolment. An influx of women into Stanford's Graduate School of Business has profoundly altered the field, she says, by leading to the introduction of courses in non-profit leadership, for example.

She adds that female students are now less reticent to speak out. "The importance of numbers cannot be overestimated."

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