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March 23, 2006

Affirmative action: Boys as bait

The dean of admissions at Kenyon College pens an open letter to the girls she rejected in favor of less qualified male applicants in order to make sure that her incoming class wasn't more than 60% female. [NYT]

According to the article, male admissions preference is the norm in college admissions. Why do elite colleges care about the 60% theshold? The author claims that colleges that are more than 60% female are less attractive to both male and female applicants:

The elephant that looms large in the middle of the room is the importance of gender balance. Should it trump the qualifications of talented young female applicants? At those colleges that have reached what the experts call a "tipping point," where 60 percent or more of their enrolled students are female, you'll hear a hint of desperation in the voices of admissions officers.

Beyond the availability of dance partners for the winter formal, gender balance matters in ways both large and small on a residential college campus. Once you become decidedly female in enrollment, fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive.

She doesn't explain how "the experts" know about the 60% tipping point. For all I know this widely-held belief could be complete pseudo-science. However, I'll assume for the sake of argument that the dean knows what she's talking about.

I think that affirmative action can be justified under certain circumstances, but I'm not sure that male gender preference in college admissions qualifies under any of the usual justifications for affirmative action.

All other things being equal, it's probably better to be closer to gender parity, if only because students seem to prefer it. Of course, whatever benefits may accrue from male preference are offset by the fact that the class is less academically qualified overall. Still, maybe a gender balance closer to 50:50 is a superior social environment, at least for girls who want boyfriends.

However, colleges also have self-interested motives for micromanaging their sex ratios. Institutions compete with each other to attract super-qualified applicants. It seems that middling male students are being chosen over more qualified female counterparts in order to attract top-tier students who might otherwise go elsewhere. Boys are being used as bait to lure elite girls. These self-interested reasons aren't legitimate excuses for discrimination. Qualified female applicants shouldn't suffer because Kenyon College is worried about preserving its US News ranking.

In principle, I think it's acceptable to allow demographics to influence application decisions. Schools have a legitimate interest in achieving a good mix of students. What constitutes a good mix is debatable, of course. Admissions committees believe that all other things being equal, applicants prefer institutions without female super-majorities. However, this is just a relative preference. If there were no gender preference in admissions, all colleges would presumably have roughly the same sex ratio--there would just be more girls than boys everywhere because qualified female applicants outnumber qualified male applicants. It's not clear to me that that college life would be dramatically worse if the sex ratios drifted from 60:40 to 65:35.

Race- and class-based affirmative action is often justified by appeal to the value of diversity. Arguably, all students are better off if they are exposed to a broad range of experiences and ideals. Education is supposed to broaden people's horizons. So, it's mutually beneficial for students from different backgrounds to go to school together. If nothing else, it's instructive to be exposed to people who aren't exactly like you.

I'm going to assume that the arguments for ethnic and economic diversity on campus are valid. Even so, these aren't arguments for the overriding importance of admitting equal numbers of people from each race or class. Nor do arguments for diversity establish that admissions should be weighted to mirror makeup of the population at large.

I don't think anyone fears that men would virtually disappear from college campuses without affirmative action. Nor would any sane person suggest that the male perspective would be in danger of dying out in academia without gender preference in admissions. Unlike other candidates for affirmative action, men are not victims of systemic discrimination, let alone historical injustice.

And yet, as the Kenyon dean explains, colleges have to discriminate heavily in order to keep the sex ratio at 60:40. Why? Because they fear they will lose their most desirable applicants to other institutions with a more competitive sex ratio. Yet, if all colleges were forced to stop discriminating by sex, the incentive to discriminate would largely disappear.

By definition, discrimination is unfair to the qualified people who get turned down. Why should they have to bear the brunt of redressing inequalities they didn't create? So, if discrimination is ever morally justified, it has to be offset by a very strong countervailing good. Arguably, gender balance is desirable, if only because students seem to prefer it. However, there's no reason to assume that near gender parity is any better than the mix you'd get without affirmative action.

Intercollegiate admissions arms races certainly aren't a good enough reason to discriminate. So, I have to conclude that sex-based affirmative action should be illegal because it doesn't meet the usual standards for justified discrimination.


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The apologia by Kenyon College’s dean of admissions for her college’s policy of discriminating against female applicants in favor of campus gender balance has raised hackles from traditional opponents of affirmative action and proponents alike. Closer ... [Read More]


Six of one, half a dozen of another here. Diversity is a huge "value add" to a class--take my word for it, everyone gets more out of it if there's racial diversity and sexual parity. That said, if very good girls are getting thrown over for medium boys, fuck that. You have to balance quality and diversity. Mostly I'm concerned that schools using pro-boy affirmative action aren't thinking big picture--women are still the minority in most fields and having more female college grads than male for a few years running could do a lot to get parity in the post-bachelor world.

As a show of indignation the phrase "boys as bait" is somewhat less than convincing.

But as a trap for google searches...

I was a bit frustrated by this op-ed. Decisions about admission are, according to Britz, being made not in an effort to advance an underprivileged population, but to keep schools marketable. This isn't affirmative action and it isn't done on the basis of any moral imperative. That said, anecdotal tales of bias don't carry a lot of weight in my book. Kenyon College rejected qualified female applicants? I'm sure they rejected qualified male applicants as well, as does every top tier private school. The issue only becomes tantament when men (or if the pendulum swings back, women) stop applying to schools in enough numbers for the institutions to stay solvent. Britz is only presenting a real problem - as opposed to when that makes her job difficult - if every school in the nation experiences equally high application rates...

Oh Lindsay, I know you celebrated mentioned the opening of Trader Joe's on 14th St last week. I can't say I'm pleased that half the sidewalk has become a loading and storage dock for the store. Great use of a busy public space for a private business...

Imagine "celebrated" striked through...

Seems like a thoroughgoing non sequitur. You argue cogently that sex-based
affirmative action is a bad thing. You then produce from your voluminous
sleeves (not shown) the conclusion that it should be outlawed.
These ideas are not unrelated, but they are distinct.
War on drugs, anyone?

Well said. I think it's loony to obligate themselves to protect males as a class, when males' historical experience as a class has been quite the opposite of institutionalized discrimination or denial of privilege.

Nor do arguments for protecting diversity of experience hold any water in this case, as opposed for example to the argument for racial diversity - whether there are 35% or 30% or 25% males in the student body, I don't think female students' experience will be impoverished by lack of exposure to a significant range of different males, in the way that students' experience would be impoverished by lack of interaction with a significant range of different races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations.

And the argument of a proportional "tipping point" beyond which students of neither gender will want to apply is silly. Even assuming that whatever dubious basis they have for this behavioral model is accurate, wouldn't it also be self-correcting? If they admitted students regardless of gender, and got a correspondingly more talented class with a higher proportion of women, but then future applicants of both genders became discouraged from applying because of the abundance of female students, wouldn't that just shrink the subsequent applicant pool a little and make room for a greater number of male students to be admitted? Even if there's a small hysteresis loop, it would be a far cry from the idea of just a few extra females causing the applicant pool to diverge and crash.

Finally, see how you feel replacing "female" with any other historically disadvantaged group: would a college be justified in turning away more qualified Black students if they found that too many Black students dissuaded future applicants from wanting to apply? or turning away more qualified gay students or Jewish students or Arabic students for the same reason?

I'm not sure where you're getting the indignation part, Wade. I think on that pro-male affirmative action in college admissions is, on the whole, a bad thing. But I'm not indignant about it.

Diversity is absolutely a good thing. To me, the question is how much strict gender parity is worth in the grand scheme of things. I think there are diminishing marginal returns. I definitely support affirmative action for men in areas where men are severely underrepresented, for example in nursing. I think the nursing schools and nursing would probably be better as a result. However, I'm not sure that 65% female students automatically makes a school worse than 60% or 50%.

The question is whether it's fair or worthwhile to make better-qualified girl applicants pay the price for gender parity in the college as a whole. To me, that seems like one more instantiation of male privilege.

What I don't understand (fully) is why female dominance in undergraduate education hasn't translated into gains in graduate schools and the professions. I know what the obstacles there are: discrimination, the mommy track, the fact that when children are born women get shouldered with an unfair proportion of the household work. But it’s just weird for women to be doing so well at one level, and so badly just one level up.

"But it’s just weird for women to be doing so well at one level, and so badly just one level up."

One has to wonder how much the American GDP is suffering because of that. It is a clear case of a culture failing to adapt to changing circumstances. I'd like to know how much American competitive agility is hurt by the obstacles we put in women's way. But I'm unsure of what metrics to use to measure the problem.

I wouldn't mind being used as bait for women, but I doubt I'd get many bites. In other words I think it would be great to go to a college with a noticeable female majority, but I couldn't get laid in a women's prison with a fistful of pardons.

I don't agree with the point about historical injustice. So far as I know, affirmative action is not a matter of redressing historical grievances; historical injustice only enters into the issue insofar as its consequences persist into the present. But then there is in principle no reason not to extend this practice, as a purely ad-hoc measure, to correct unwanted disparities on behalf of any group, whenever and however they occur.

I think Amanda's right on. Yet, at the same time, we have to face the fact that universities/colleges are businesses. This obviously isn't ideal, especially since it affects even the disciplines that are taught, thus often changing the nature of the "university," and even liberal arts colleges, in the name of more profitable disciplines and activities. But it's reality.

Different schools are going to use different criteria regarding the balance between diversity and quality. Some are more egalitarian - for various reasons - others much less so. If we make the acknowledgedly problematic assumption that schools *ought* to function as if they are corporate members of a market economy, then it seems fair to say that the best applicants ought to be admitted. If that means a greater number of women to men, so be it. I see a big difference in classes that are diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, and class, but much less so if a class has a larger number of women than men. Gender balance weighted towards men doesn't seem to me to have much to back it up in terms of diversity, systemic injustice, or quality. Not so, the other way around.

If we can't legitimately make that normative assumption - about schools as businesses - then nearly anything goes regarding at least private schools. Hopefully, they strike a balance - however it may be measured - between quality and diversity. That balance is contingent upon a number of factors, including what students and their parents are seeking in a college. I'm not so sure that more men is the more important criterion over quality of education - data on this would be useful to the discussion here. The composition and mission of public schools, on the other hand, ought to be a matter of fair and inclusive public deliberation.

If you subscribe to the presumption that males continue to represent a class which is in all ways "privileged" in relation to females, then this dialogue makes a certain amount of sense.

If you don't, however, there seem to be contradictions. The thread implies that women are beginning to dominate undergraduate education. The reason? Males are less qualified. But men dominate in the post-graduate and professional world. The reason? Females are discriminated against. Or, to rephrase from a slightly different angle, it is considered a bad thing when women constitute a minority in some field of opportunity, but a perfectly acceptable thing when men constitute a minority in some other fields of opportunity.

I realize the previous paragraph is a simplification. (Lindsay, your caveat about nursing school is noted.) Nor am I suggesting that every statement in it is completely false. But the underlying sentiment behind the thread betrays a complete indifference to the phenomenon of why half the population -- supposedly, the "privileged" half -- is becoming less qualified and underrepresented in a key area of opportunity in this society. If this is "OK", then it suggests that numerical equality is not a particularly compelling factor in measuring just treatment. If it's not "OK", then it's difficult to see why the college administrators' efforts to maintain numerical gender parity is objectionable.

Gender disparities may be evidence of systematic biases, but they aren't necessarily.

Amanda had a really good post at Pandagon about the>intersection of gender and class and the college college achievement gap. The gap is most pronounced for guys from working class families. Maybe working class guys are singled out for an extra measure of discrimination compared to their sisters. However, it's also true that there are more opportunities for men to make a living wage without graduating from high school, or going to college. So, guys are more inclined to drop out or go immediately from high school to work.

Is this evidence of discrimination? Not necessarily. These guys actually have more options than their female counterparts who need more education to make a comparable amount of money in pink collar jobs. They would benefit from male-preference in admissions if they decided to apply to college, and they benefit from the wage gap if they don't.

Just because there isn't sex discrimination doesn't mean that it's good that working class guys aren't going to college. However, it doesn't necessarily prove that they are the victims of gender-based injustice. Clearly, our society doesn't do enough to make post secondary education accessible to everyone who might want it. It's clearly a good thing to have a more educated workforce, especially now that good blue collar jobs are disappearing. However, that's a separate issue. The gender preference in admissions debate is about whether it's fair to discriminate against women in order to advance men. If a certain percentage of kids aren't going to college, is it morally relevant that there are slightly more boys than girls in that category? Perhaps, but not necessarily. In other words, is it worse for boys not to go to college than girls? It's definitely worse for a more qualified person to be denied admission in favor of a less-qualified person. So, the benefits of adding boys has to offset the costs of disadvantaging girls in a zero-sum game.

There's another possibility here. The fact that there are fewer women than men in certain fields doesn't immediately indicate discrimination; however, carefully controlled studies comparing equally qualified women and men show that women are discriminated against.

Now, if there's evidence that men are discriminated against in college admissions, then certainly there should be affirmative action in their favor. But right now there's no such evidence; the best available evidence indicates that primary and secondary schools help making girls more qualified than boys for a variety of reasons (precisely which reasons was debated earlier, in Lindsay's Gender Gaps thread).

Now I'm sad because I was accepted to Kenyon with money back in '94.

Oh, wait... On second thought, maybe I was boy bait. Cool.

Gender disparities may be evidence of systematic biases, but they aren't necessarily.

I completely agree ... but this holds true in areas where women appear to be victims of bias, as well.

Your assertion about the greater availability of jobs for men without degrees is somewhat more suspect. I imagine there's an element of truth to this, but with America's deindustrialization, good-paying blue collar jobs for which men tend to be better qualified than women are much more scarce than they used to be. I would also take issue with the assumption that the 'drop out/take job' phenomenon among men represents the availability of more options, as opposed to the presence of more intense pressures to earn money. I strongly suspect the latter is more typical, and that in fact, high school males do suffer from a complicated gender-based bias (perhaps relating to money, violence and self-worth or to the reasons explored in the Gender Gaps thread with which I'm unfamiliar) for which a kind of affirmative action at the college level is not completely unreasonable.

At any rate, Lindsay, your response suggests you lean towards the 'numerical disparities are not compelling indicators of injustice' option. I tend to agree, but it makes the evaluation of whether or not injustice or bias is occurring in any particular situation hellishly complicated, and throws into question assumptions that underpin gender-equity legislation and the arguments of certain feminists.

Your assertion about the greater availability of jobs for men without degrees is somewhat more suspect. I imagine there's an element of truth to this, but with America's deindustrialization, good-paying blue collar jobs for which men tend to be better qualified than women are much more scarce than they used to be.


I say that numerical disparities are not sufficient to establish discrimination. If you want to cite a disparity as evidence of discrimination, then the onus is on you to establish that it is the result of discrimination, especially if you want to pass legislation that might disadvantage innocent people unfairly.

For example, I'm not convinced that 100% of the gender disparity in the physical science is due to discrimination. However, as Alon pointed out, there are well-controlled studies that supply evidence that women are discriminated against, even when you take into account other factors. Discrepancies between males and females may reflect differences in expectations, norms, desires, etc. without necessarily being anybody's fault.

It's one thing to say that it would be good to have more female engineers and scientists (or more male working class college graduates) because an entire segment of society is much worse of than it could be and we could help them by encouraging them to pursue promising career opportunities. It's quite another to set up a zero-sum game in which the target group gets preferential treatment at the direct expense of some innocent person with better qualifications.

It's easier to argue that individuals deserve preference within an ostensibly meritocratic system if you say that they have been discriminated against (or that they are suffering from a legacy of discrimination). After all, if they are disadvantaged, their current performance may not be a reliable indicator of their real potential.

This business about systemic discrimination doesn't work for me either. Systemic discrimination goes beyond obviously intentional--and morally charged--cases to include virtually any conceivable "system" that disadvantages a group. No specific mechanism for discrimination is implied; indeed, it's one of the main attractions of this line of argument that you don't have to specify one.

"carefully controlled studies comparing equally qualified women and men show that women are discriminated against."

Link Please!

I have only seen such studies for the social sciences rather than the hard sciences.

"Systemic discrimination goes beyond obviously intentional--and morally charged--cases to include virtually any conceivable "system" that disadvantages a group."

You could build a case for affirmative action based on social utility rather than morality. The social utility arguments are many; for instance, you may want the American economy to grow faster.


I would think that as a philosopher, you would be suspicious of the implicit assumption that there is a single linear scale of "qualification" on which every student can be unambiguously ranked. I think it is more nearly true that there are many different axes of talents and abilities, which the schools then condense down to a more-or-less linear scale by weighting the different axes in various ways - some explicitly, others implicitly. These weights change over time. As such, we should recognize that any judgement as to which of two similarly-ranked students is "more qualified" is somewhat arbitrary and time-dependent.

Take me, for example. When I was going to high school in the early '70s, I did really well at "picking out the right answer from a list of choices," and "remembering stuff for the test," but I was less good at "writing timed essays," and I absolutely sucked at "finishing and turning in regular homework" (as opposed to the occasional special project/term paper). I was fortunate that the SAT of the time depended entirely on the first ability, and that almost all of my high school classes placed little or no weight on regular homework in determining one's grade. Today, with an essay section as part of the SAT and high school classes that weight regular homework highly, I expect that both my SAT score and high school GPA would be lower than they were back then. Thus, even if a college admission office kept the same formal weight on test scores and high school GPA today as they did then, I would probably come across as less qualified today than I did then in the admission decision. But I don't think actual college course requirements have changed as much over the years, so I would be just about as able/unable to handle the workload as I was back then. I was the fortunate beneficiary of an evaluation system that played to my strengths and concealed my weaknesses from the admissions committees I dealt with. Today I would not have that advantage, and might be disadvantaged relative to my actual ability to handle college work.

Is this relevant to the Kenyon decision to admit some men over more highly-ranked women? Maybe, if the admission weights that are used today favor abilities that women as a group do better at than men as a group. (Maybe not, if earlier criteria were overly biased in favor of men, and today's are simply more balanced.) As the father of a son with ADHD (which is far more prevelant among boys than girls), I recognize how his condition exaggerates many of the same weaknesses that I had. So it is at least plausible to me that the shift in emphasis over the years has tended to favor women more than men as a group, relative to their positions in the mid-70s. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends partly on how much you think those criteria favored men.

I do think that at least some diversity criteria can, in fact, be subjective compensation for perceived weaknesses in the weighting function used in the "objective" rankings, as well as broadening campus perspectives and compensating for historical bias. So there is at least some reason for considering sexual balance if you think that the current weightings favor one sex too much. (Though one should always be suspicious of rigid quotas, especially given the historical use of quotas to limit the number of Jewish students and other minorities at many schools in the early part of the twentieth century.)

I should also note that the arbitrary nature of weighting functions doesn't mean that the resulting ranking is totally arbitrary. The further apart two students are in the ranking, the more likely that the ranking reflects a true difference in overall ability, rather than the choice of particular weights. So I think there is a stronger argument for using diversity to choose between two students who are within some "margin of error" of each other, rather than those who are further apart. But the issue is complex, and not easily resolved.

My question is why they need to know. Why is it a question on the application? What value is added to the admissions process by knowledge of gender? They don't discriminate if they can't differentiate.

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