Colleges weigh options as fewer men apply

At college campuses across the country, women are making up the majority of students pursuing postsecondary degrees, and some schools are seeking ways to achieve gender parity, The New York Times reports. Although experts say men are more likely to go to college now than when they made up the majority of college graduates, women have accounted for a larger share of U.S. college students for over four decades.

While noting that schools’ data on gender may not reflect the actual number of nonbinary students enrolled, the Times reports that currently, there are nearly three women for every two men in college in the U.S., with especially large imbalances at state schools, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Women slightly outnumber men in first-year classes at every Ivy League school, except Dartmouth. Schools with popular football teams or those renowned for engineering tend to have classes with smaller discrepancies. 

Exploring what has exacerbated gender gaps on many campuses, the Times points to disparities in educational achievement, which emerge as early as elementary school and lead to greater college preparedness among young women. The lure of the job market, and anti-higher education rhetoric also have played a role, as did the COVID-19 pandemic, when men experienced greater enrollment declines.

While some experts question the urgency of attaining gender parity given that women are still underrepresented at the highest levels of leadership, Richard Reeves, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, warns of the “male drift” occurring as a result of men’s underrepresentation at college and subsequent underemployment. Achieving greater gender parity is important to avoid a perception that “there’s something incompatible between masculinity and educational excellence,” he says.

Attempting to find balance

To increase their share of male college students, some schools consider gender as a factor in their admissions process, as Title IX—1972 legislation barring exclusion on the basis of gender—does not prohibit private colleges and universities from showing preference for male applicants during the admissions process. Many public institutions, however, have not been allowed to consider gender or race at all, especially in states that previously banned affirmative action, such as California, Washington, Florida, Arizona, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Idaho, according to a 2021 article from The Hechinger Report.

Universities wary of factoring gender into admissions decisions have focused instead on aggressively recruiting more male applicants, especially in Black and Latino populations, whose college enrollments are lowest, the Times says. Some schools are targeting their outreach to men by offering them free stickers or baseball caps in exchange for filling out information on the school website, or sending marketing materials specifically geared toward male applicants. Several institutions have also added varsity sports, such as football, rugby, volleyball, or e-sports to attract more male students. Around 73 schools added football teams over the past decade.

However, schools focused on attracting men can find themselves in “a strange feedback loop,” the Times writes. Paradoxically, “the scarcer men are, the more they end up driving a school’s priorities”—often making it even harder for high-achieving female applicants to gain admission at highly selective schools seeking more equal gender demographics.

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