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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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Comments

Lindsay- Not to beat a dead horse, but I suspect that the election of a woman as Homecoming King at Hood College was a protest against just this sort of thing- that the students had been happy to have been going to a woman's college and were pissed at having to put up with men who couldn't have got in on merit. (Especially men who were admitted on the basis of their basketball skills, but not only them.)

I remember hearing in college that men statistically give more money than women do to their alma maters, as do athletes. I remember this coming up in the context of Vassar essentially whoring itself to male applicants and athletics.

Of course, larger numbers of men and athletes also dramatically increases date rape statistics, but what the hell... if it'll pump up those alumni contributions, it's worth it!

Gender parity is a special issue at the technically oriented school. In my day the majors of everything but engineering would practice clear gender parity while the engineering schools by and large were >75% M. It made for an ugly social environment of fake fraternity and false sorority. Calling my college experience anti intellectual (and we were asked to study 3h for every h in class) still seems not an oxymoron. This school also had one other particular issue which is that graduate education got far more attention and funding than the undergraduate side, and the funding the undergraduate side got was sometimes skimmed from the physical plant by scandal and sometimes effectively used for attempts at solidarity of the stupefaction. Three girls for every two guys has effects considerably stronger than decreasing attachment frequency/level although this is terribly significant. For one thing, gender imbalance leads to unhealthy peer to peer competition. For another, it creates an environment in which one's social sphere is constricted to the miniature surroundings of neighbored and available folks.

"Though the undergraduate national gender gap stands at 57 percent women, the phenomenon is not evenly distributed across all campuses. In general, small liberal arts colleges have been hit hardest by the shortage of males, and large public universities the least. That is because large public institutions usually have engineering departments, business schools, and football and basketball teams, all significant draws for men. Small liberal arts colleges often do not.

And within the liberal arts group there is a pecking order. Top-tier schools have encountered little difficulty thus far in maintaining a 50/50 balance while second- and third-tier schools have found it almost impossible. One official speculated that this may reflect an unspoken affirmative action policy on the part of first-tier schools who are admitting male students that formerly would have attended a lower-tier institution."

Other interesting info at:

http://www.highereducation.org/crosstalk/ct0205/news0205-boys.shtml

Lets just establish that there are two kinds of schools. [1]Schools to which women apply because they want to meet the right kind of man and [2]schools to which women apply because its the best education their mix of money and talent can garner. Arbitrary, but a concievable categorization if you put up with binarizing on a spectrum.

Now in this context, the type [2] school that cuts off female applicants above a certain acceptance ratio regardless of their relative academic merit is clearly a raw deal. Won't get into the argument about the society and the school getting screwed out of the rewards lost to posterity let alone the applicant.
So I reject the policy as harmful in case [2]

In case [1], we are more clearly admitting that its as much a matter of two categories of school as it is two categories of female applicant but that does not actually effect the argument! Here, one could argue that the school has done its marketing homework and determined if it lets in fewer males, it is not stocking the shelves, so to speak, with the goods that actually attract the female applicant. [I could imagine that if this were a serious proposal, every feminists hackles would be up]. Leave aside the argument that such a hypothetical market of shallow female applicants deserves in a way a school with such a dimwitted philosophy. Just consider what kind of men the women get to meet if the school is systematically taking male applicants less qualified than the females need to be? Again, I reject such a policy as harmful to the interests it hypothetically professes to serve.

So, in my little world, no school has a leg to stand on in pursuing such a policy.

[I think "strawmen" are ok to attack if you can reasonably create them by division of the kinds of actual "men", arguments or positions that comprise the universe of discussion]

discrimination in the form of affirmative action is the usual thing in America, you should have gotten used to discrimination

ps. it's very ridiculous to see when universities say that they are against discrimination but are for affirmative action :) a true Goebbels' stuff

I'm sure that all the Angry White Males decrying affirmative action will be up in arms about this. Right?

In the first place, I thought statistical disparities were de facto proof of discrimination?
Secondly, won’t these cause problems come baby time?
Thirdly, told ya so..

C Davis- it's never a persuasive argument to imagine what your adversary will say and then to sneer at it. It may feel good but it's never yet convinced anyone of anything they didn't already believe. (Not surprisingly, it's George Bush's favorite form of argumentation.) But I expect you're correct that the AWMs are not likely to be up in arms. Instead they are more likely to point out what they will see as the politically correct hypocrisy in e.g. Greensville's post:

"Just consider what kind of men the women get to meet if the school is systematically taking male applicants less qualified than the females need to be?"

Now, put "African-Americans" in that sentence for "male" and "men" and replace "women" and "females" with "employers" or "graduate schools," and see what you get. Does anyone find it a persuasive argument against affirmative action in the one situation but not in the other?

Won't what cause problems?

>>>"I'm sure that all the Angry White Males decrying affirmative action will be up in arms about this. Right?"

I'm not angry, I'm very cheerful :) i don't live in America (i'm from europe). I spent some time in America - funny experience, that's enough. Now i read American blogs and laugh.

That's your country - do whatever you like with affirmative action (BTW what an idiotic term) but don't pretend being JUST with individuals.

Data point: I attended Vassar in the late 1980s and the gender balance at the time was 60/40 girls/guys.

This is just bizarre. What is the Dean afraid of? Is there a tipping point where 1 more girl over a certain percentage and all the girls go gay?

Maybe she is afraid the entire school will start to co-cycle and create havic with class schedules, pop quizes and mid-terms!

The article doesn't mention if the guys are cute or not.

Question: at traditionally male-dominated schools, does admin accept weaker female students and turn away stronger male students, to keep the ratio at 60/40?

I doubt it, somehow.

I'm assuming that admin is scared that a female-dominated student body will lower the prestige of the institution: anything done exclusively by women is perceived to be of lower value than anything done exclusively by men.

I've always called this the 35% rule, myself. I'm sure that if my area of the academy is ever totally dominatated by women it'll become about as prestigious as kindergarten teaching is now.

Huh. I attendeded a small science/engineering school where the percent of women fluctuated between 20-35%, and there was suspicion that some of that was due to lower standards for female applicants.

Speaking purely for myself, I just don't understand guys who would rank a school with more women as worse. Has there been any motive proposed?

Obviously, the solution is to selectively admit, from among the mediocre male applicants, a small number of the very cutest. A few highly attractive boys will draw more elite female applicants than a sea of ordinary-looking guys with ordinary brains.

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.

There are other ways to find an applicant's gender, such as checking the name, and reading the personal statement. Having a gender field doesn't make it easier for the admissions committee to discriminate, but does make it easier for the government to detect discrimination.

One reason promulgated for the government to keep its regulatory ambitions in check is that the wisdom to regulate by general criteria is in short supply and the process is subject to political perversion.
Just because it's classic anti-communist propaganda doesn't mean that there is no merit in the position.
Micromanagement has an extremely checkered history and violates the principle of letting the people with the closest involvement in a situation call the shots : think of it as regulating to the point of counter-productivity.
Education may be too important to leave to educators ; then again, who would you trust more than people involved in transmitting knowledge because they are stimulated by the transaction ? Regulators ?
In law, every case is ( supposedly ) arguable on its own merits. Review is not proactive regardless of the frustrations one encounters with being late.

As a talented homosexual man, my opinion about these issues rides upon 1 factor - are the "special" admits disproportionately straight, gay, or neither? Anything that increases male presence on campus is welcome, but really dating opportunity is the sole justification that really motivates me to ignore my longstanding rule against discriminating.

I want to suspect that the "special" admits are heterosexual, because of the stupidity, and therefore I oppose this program. Let each person be judged on their merit and let me find dates easily among the remaining 30% of men.

I fear that the "special" admits are evenly heterosexual and homosexual - this program may be desperately needed to create a diversity of viewpoints and dates.

I think it highly unlikely that the "special" admits are primarily homosexual - anyone disagree?

This issue needs more study before a truly effective opinion can be reached.

"Has there been any motive proposed?"

Less people willing to play 12 straight hours of Halo.

"One reason promulgated for the government to keep its regulatory ambitions in check is that the wisdom to regulate by general criteria is in short supply"

It's possible you're making a point that I've completely missed, but what government regulations are you referring to? This 60/40 rule isn't coming from the government, it's coming from college admissions officers.


"Micromanagement has an extremely checkered history and violates the principle of letting the people with the closest involvement in a situation call the shots"

If college admissions officers are not the appropriate people to decide who gets into college, then who is?

Again, apologies if I'm misreading your comment.

>Lindsay wrote: "...Admissions committees believe that all other things being equal, applicants prefer institutions without female super-majorities."

I think this is clear.

>"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."

I think this is something of a naive statement about preferences. If no college held gender preference in admissions, it's still not reasonable to assume that all colleges admitting comparably qualified students would have equal (or essentially equal) gender ratios. Any school, for any number of reasons, could be preferable to one sex.

One example for which this is true is that of gay students, a group that is basically undetectable in the admissions process. Schools like Smith or Oberlin attract a much higher proportion of gay students than academically comparable schools. For whatever reason, those schools are significantly more attractive to that subset of students. Importantly, prospective students visiting the campus can make a reasonable guess at the gay population on campus, whereas admissions, usually, is in the dark about that same prospective student's orientation. This means that prospective gay students are able to select themselves into their preferred environments.

For women and men, it is more reasonable to assume that in Lindsay's proposed nonpreferential system, there would be a diversity of gender ranges, as students would select, to their degree of preference, the school that best fit their preferred gender ratio. Some schools, like Sarah Lawrence, would likely continue to have very unequal numbers of men and women, even relative to to proportion of qualified men and women. Others would continue to be relatively equal.

>"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."

I agree (but think this is something of a non sequitur in this paragraph).

It's possible you're making a point that I've completely missed, but what government regulations are you referring to? This 60/40 rule isn't coming from the government, it's coming from college admissions officers.

I believe opit's referring to governmental anti-discrimination laws.

One reason promulgated for the government to keep its regulatory ambitions in check is that the wisdom to regulate by general criteria is in short supply and the process is subject to political perversion.

When there is rampant discrimination, a hands-off approach only exacerbates the problem. One of the oft cited reasons for November's French riots is governmental indifference to discrimination, one of whose forms was (and still is, I think) not gathering any data about workers' ethnicity on the grounds that "everyone is equally French." The only thing that policy did was make it easy for employers and landlords to severely discriminate against Arabs.

"I believe opit's referring to governmental anti-discrimination laws."

I got that, but we haven't been discussing that in this thread, yes? Unless I've misread the post and the comments, I thought we were talking about a policy being pushed forward by the college admission committees. There is no government regulation that says schools have to maintain a minimum of a 60/40 ratio in gender balance.

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