The proportion of male undergraduates at American universities has fallen to 45 per cent, prompting calls for special help - including waivers of admission standards - to increase numbers in the same way United States universities have worked to raise the proportion of minorities.
The idea has provoked considerable controversy. Advocates of finding ways to admit more males say that boys are less serious about their academic performance until later in their pre-college careers than girls, and therefore do not always meet the criteria required for admission.
Critics retort that males are a privileged majority who deserve no special favours. The National Association for College Admission Counseling scheduled two panels on the issue at its annual convention in Washington. One was called "Where Have All the Men Gone?" Whatever the answer, the proportion of men enrolled in universities continues to erode. In 1997, the latest year that data have been made available, 520,500 American men earned undergraduate degrees, compared with 652,400 women. Men now make up 45 per cent of undergraduate enrolment, compared with 57 per cent in 1970.
"We clearly don't want fewer qualified men," said Robert J. Massa, vice-president at Dickinson College. "Then again, we've milked all we can from the current pool."
Thomas Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Center for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, said the dearth of men was partly a result of the diminishing presence of men in family life in the wake of divorce and other trends. But there was no consensus about a solution.
"Is this a new affirmative action, this time for a privileged group?" Harry Dawe, assistant director of admissions at Oberlin College, asked in a reference to programmes to increase the representation of minorities. "I call this the issue that dare not speak its name."
A subsequent report by the American Council on Education, contending that the issue was a manufactured crisis only served to muddy the waters. It said income, race and age had more to do with the scant supply of men than simply gender; among white students, there was virtually no difference in the proportion of men and women who attended university.
Author Jacqueline King said administrators should "concentrateI resources and attention on students who are in greatest danger of being left behind in the educational pipeline", whether they be male or female, "and to avoid becoming distracted by 'crises' that may have little basis in fact."