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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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I wrote about this on my blog the other day (only your response is actually articulate).... I found your blog from I Blame the Patriarchy and it's fantastic.

One minor point. Let's say women are going to college in droves, and men aren't. (And/or that women are generally better qualified/prepared.) Wouldn't it be really good for men to be outnumbered? Sure, young women might wish for a better ratio, but if all the good schools have more women they won't be able to use that as a deterrent. So young men would learn what it's like to have a little less privilege, and women would learn to value the male gaze a little less. Seems like a win-win, doesn't it?

"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?"

You have no idea how much these two lines make me laugh, and laugh and laugh. It was ok for working class men to bear the brunt of racial affrimative action (because when you look, that's who took it on the chin), but it isn't ok for middle class women to do so.

I support affirmative action for blacks, but I do so only because they are so overwhelmingly discriminated against in the US. And yet - no one has every convinced me that what you wrote wasn't also true. And the people who benefitted most from racism and sexism were never the people who paid the price of affirmative action. It was always poor and marginal whites who did.

Affirmative action is discrimination. Period. No matter who it is done for. But I haven't found a feminist yet who is willing to argue against it for both women and men OR for it for both men and women.

One college. The sample is far too small.

Kenyon is a small, liberal arts college. Are all small, liberal arts colleges having trouble attracting qualified male applicants? The dean says that 55 per cent of her applicants are female. She doesn't say that 55 per cent of qualified applicants are female. Kenyon is not as attractive to men as it it to women, for some reason. If they are taking five per cent more of the women and could accept even more, that suggests that Kenyon is more attractive to highly qualified women than to highly qualified men.

She says that 2/3rds of colleges and universities have more female than male applicants, but she doesn't say what the average is, so I don't know if Kenyon is normal or not. But I assume that this number includes community colleges, junior colleges, and universities with nursing programs and education programs---all of which attract and enroll a higher proportion of female applicants.

Meanwhile, at the top engineering schools and schools with first-rate engineering programs, there's the opposite "problem." Well over 51 per cent of the student population is male! At some of these schools it's well over 60 per cent!

No doubt gender biases and cultural and economic pressures contribute to the disproportions at all these schools. But it could very well be that Kenyon's problems are Kenyon's problems.

By the way, the basic premise of your argument, and Amanda's at her place, is exactly the same as the whiny white males who complain about affirmative action for minorities---they assume that the white males who are being turned down were all A students and the black and brown students being accepted are C students.

You are assuming that all the women being turned down are high achievers and the men being accepted are slackers.

The dean doesn't say anything about the actual qualifications of either group. She says the women are more qualified, which doesn't mean the men are unqualified, just less qualified. But what does that mean? Qualifications include more than grades and test scores these days. Notice that the dean's description of her daughter's qualifications doesn't include her GPA or her test scores, but does include specific mention of her mountain climbing and her trip to Africa---accomplishments, no doubt, but the opportunities for that kind of accomplishment are handed out to upper middle class kids and rich kids far more than they are to the children of factory workers. These accomplishments are "qualifications." When two A plus students are up for a position, the one with more extra curriculars looks more accomplished. But maybe all she is is luckier in her choice of her parents.

Also, what are the odds that an A plus student who is turned down by one college is going to be turned down by all the colleges she applies to? For all we know, all the women Kenyon is turning down are being turned down by their second or third choice of schools or by a school that would not have offered them enough financial aid. Being turned down by a school they were qualified to attend might have been unfair, but was it actually a loss?

Too small a sample, not enough information.

Sad that this is an issue, I think if there were 60 % men and 40 % women it would not be an issue at all. For the first time in history there are fewer men enrolling in grad school in the US. For the first time in history there are more women buying new homes then men. It is great that women are accomplishing more then they did in the past however, equality means equality. If we want to be liberals we need to take that in it's truest form, we might not like the results.

Oh, jeez. I misread the dean's letter. Her daughter didn't climb a mountain or dig a well in Africa. Other kids do do that kind of thing, though, and those accomplishments have weight on applications, as do regular extracurriculars and volunteer work and part-time jobs. And as it happens girls manage to include more of all that stuff in their high school careers. Whatever's going on at Kenyon, this is a general fact.

All across the board, boys are not achieving as much or as high as their sisters. Some of this is due to problems boys have like more learning disabilities and economic pressures to go to work right away, but some of it is due to the fact that boys are not working as hard at school as their sisters.

I support affirmative action for race and class. There is a href=>no college enrollment gap for male students from the middle and upper classes. The gap is only evident for kids with lower SES.

Poorer kids deserve special consideration for admission because they are obviously disadvantaged in the here and now. As long as public schools are funded by property taxes, you can't expect lower SES kids to have had as many opportunities to prepare for college as their upper middle class peers.

The difference between 60/40 and 66/33 is that in the former case, there are 1.5 women for every man and in the latter, it's 2 for every man. That's a significant difference. Given that people go to college to date, etc. and not just to study, and that reputations are based on this stuff and do matter, it makes sense to me that colleges would want to control this ratio. At 3:1 a college starts to look like caltech. This isn't so bad for caltech, but it's probably not the direction that Kenyon wants to go.

I'm fully agreed with the conclusion.

But I'd like to echo the poster above as to the inquantifiability of 'qualified.' Depending on what institution you're talking about, it can mean many different, even contradictory, things. Some schools really care about sports. Others about academic prowess, as measured by test scores and grades. And so on.

'Meritocracy' is simple privileging one version of 'qualified' over others.

Affirmative action for men sounds somewhat silly. But so is expecting that there is some type of objective criterion that universities could use to judge admissions. The process is designed to filter out certain people, and affirmative action simply adjusts the filter. Denying (or allowing) positive discrimination for any group is not any more or less 'fair.'

WTF. What red-blooded straight male in his right mind would complain about a 2:1 female-to-male gender ratio?

And probably half of the males in university would be poetry writing EMO kids, so even the young construction workers, firemen and policemen benefit from the scarcity of campus masculinity when they visit a campus pub. :P

In a devil's advocating sort of way... the "male affirmative action" though seemingly distasteful in this case may be a symptom of a good thing for the college age girls of this country. Fact of the matter is that the populations of colleges (as a whole) are now more than half women. Girls and women now out perform and out graduate boys and men at every level and in every subject (possible exceptions in high school AP Physics and AP Calc if I am remembering correctly). Gender discrimination is not to be encouraged... but in the case of schools it is coming directly form the growing dominance of women in the classroom.

Let there be no doubt, that when it is stated that affirmative action is sometimes of benefit, that one can be assured that such times are when it is to the benefit of females. But when affirmative action would seem to be benefitting males, then it is a terrible thing.

I have no doubt that there would be cries of execration if it was found out that males made up 60%+ of the college places in the institution named, and that many of the respondents would be crying out for affirmative action as the only solution.

Indeed, one of the respondents said that affirmative action was bad in this because it discriminated against women, but yet, she also sees issues in areas of life where men may be in the majority. So, basically one can only conclude by her logic that she has a problem with males, simply because they are males.

In fact, I think if we were all very honest, we would all agree that there is an element of misandry about this whole article, very simply, it's just another opportunity to blame the boys and to go out male bashing. This point can very easily be proven by looking at statements above which imply that males are the privileged class and that they have been historically. This is the great lie of our time. Any INTELLIGENT HONEST woman would know that in the past, times were very hard for the majority of both men and women, that both men and women were denied education, rights, and for the most part decent lives. It is a great lie to give the impression that men were all living the high life and ONLY women were suffering the bad life.......The truth is that some men and some WOMEN from the higher classes had the fine lives.......And let there be no doubt that the women at these high levels in past would have had the same contempt for the poorer classes trying to get their rights, as many of the respondents do towards males mentioned in the article above........

Rather then coming up with hair brain ideas such as....."Maybe let women be in the majority for a few years to balance things"........what we should actually do it to push towards greater equality.....i.e. 50/50 going forward. Lets start fixing the fact that males may not be getting the same high grades as females, let get to the high schools and ensure that males do better there, so that they will get more places in college.

We need to get beyond the present negative mental attitude towards males in our society. We need to challenge people in our society, such as the misandrists above and tell them to stop pointing the finger of blame at men all the time, and to start facing up to the damage that they cause.

Such people as the misandrists' above need to be challenged to ensure that our democracy remains healthy and that we avoid creeping slowly towards a state with pre-fascist opinions "in this case a state where men a singled out and blamed on all things bad", No more making people wear yellow stars and blaming them on everything “metaphorically of course”.

Blogs are good for every one where we get lots of information for any topics nice job keep it up !!!

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