By Caleb Bissinger
Bushnell Hall is much like any other dorm: fluorescent overheads, blue mattresses and an overcompensating radiator. Bushnell, however, is a sandstone and cinder reminder of a prevailing statistic at Kenyon and across higher education.
In a 2006 New York Times op-ed, Jennifer Delahunty, Kenyon’s dean of admissions, wrote, “two-thirds of colleges and universities report that they get more female than male applicants, and more than 56 percent of undergraduates nationwide are women.” There are more men than women at Kenyon. And while the College has maintained a female-to-male ratio of 53 to 47 since 2008, today, nearly 60 percent of all undergraduates across America are women.
Female applicants may, in fact, undergo harsher judgment than their male counterparts. Delahunty’s op-ed made a provocative claim: “the standards for admission to today’s most selective colleges are stiffer for women than men.”
Five years later, “the gap appears to be widening,” Delahunty said in an interview this week. “Is it because girls are overperforming, or are boys backsliding?”
“Somehow in our evolving culture, a phenomenon has occurred where guys are less likely to develop academically than females,” Director of Counseling Services Patrick Gilligan said. “I don’t think anyone can pinpoint a cause of that, but we might look at what is causing it to stay in place.”
In the 2010 pool of 4,064 Kenyon applicants, 2,404 of them were female and 1,660 were male. Yet, as in 2006, male applicants had a slightly higher acceptance rate.
At some colleges, these numbers are even more dramatic. At Vassar College, which Kenyon’s admissions office lists as a frequent overlap school, 60 percent of the student body is female. To prevent that ratio from sliding further towards women, Vassar admitted 34 percent of the men who applied but only 21 percent of the women in 2008. An hour south of Vassar at Sarah Lawrence College, 73 percent of the student body is female.
Academic experts and admissions deans like Henry Broaddus at The College of William & Mary argue that these schools have reached a statistical “tipping point.” When the student body becomes somewhere around 60 or 70 percent female, the college becomes less desirable to both male and female potential applicants.
But not everyone is sold on this theory.
“Maybe we’ve operated under a kind of myth about gender balance,” Delahunty said. She recently spoke with the Amy Abrams, dean of admissions at Sarah Lawrence, who said interest in her school is thriving despite a student body that is only 27 percent male.
Yet the fact remains that boys have an easier time getting into college. A 2003 study by economists Sandy Baum and Eban Goodstein found that boys were 6.5 to 9 percent more likely than girls to receive a fat envelope from a liberal arts school.
This imbalance may be the result of de facto affirmative action for boys. And at private colleges, like Kenyon, it is perfectly legal. Title IX, the law that enforces gender equality in education, does not apply to admissions at private colleges, only to how students are treated once they have enrolled.
For these schools, enforcement may be most visible in athletics. Title IX stipulates that the number of male and female athletes competing for their college must be proportional to how those genders are represented in the student body.
“The proportionality prong is a safe harbor for institutions because it’s easy to prove,” said Amy Williams, assistant athletic director in charge of compliance. “This is often the ticking point for institutions, too – many use this prong to reduce programs, when in fact, they might meet another prong of Title IX requirements.”
At Kenyon, 292 men and 255 women compete as varsity athletes for 22 sports – 11 for men and 11 for women.
Noting the high athletic involvement of male students, Gilligan said, “We not only have men at Kenyon, but a diverse group of men. Athletics is a good way to provide diversity on campus.”
Maintaining that diversity, however, can be difficult. As reported in Inside Higher Ed, some legal experts argue that giving men an admissions advantage in order to keep sex ratios from passing the tipping point has a side effect. They argue that by preserving the proportionality a college can protect male sports teams like football, which at Kenyon is the largest single-sex program. The team has nearly twice as many players as the women-only sports volleyball and field hockey combined.
The sports issue was central to an investigation into unfair gender practices in higher education that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights opened in 2009. Shrouded in controversy, the investigation was suspended this year after three of the 19 schools under examination withheld data on male and female academic records.
“The only way a college can justify selecting someone with lesser academic skills is if they meet a desired goal,” Gilligan said. “How important is gender to Kenyon College? We have to sit back and ask ourselves.”
“Gender balance matters for the simple reason that diversity enhances the classroom experience,” Delahunty said.
But many classes at Kenyon are surprisingly gender imbalanced. The statistics are particularly skewed in the majors men and women choose to pursue.
In April, The Daily Beast website published a list of the most useless undergraduate degrees. They found the 20 degrees that feed to careers with the lowest median starting and mid-career salaries and the worst projected number of jobs in the next decade.
Of Kenyon’s five most popular majors, two made the list: psychology and English. At Kenyon, more than twice as many women pursue those majors than men.
In July, The Huffington Post published a list of the best-paying college majors. Of Kenyon’s top five, only economics landed a spot. In 2009, 24 Kenyon men graduated with an economics degree. Only 11 women did the same.
“The bottom line is that guys are still in charge,” Gilligan said. Only three percent of Fortune 500 CEOs (chief executive officers) are women.
Seventy-six percent of congressmen are men. And across all sectors, men out-earn their female counterparts.
“Guys are an endangered species who run the place,” Gilligan said.
At Kenyon, only 12 women serve on the 42-person Board of Trustees, and 42 percent of the full-time faculty is female, even though women today earn 60 percent of all masters’ degrees.
These numbers will likely change in the coming decades if fewer and fewer men pursue higher education. “How long can men hold onto the power in our culture without having a pool of educated young men?” Gilligan said. “How can we reassert ourselves in academic circles without wanting to own everything?”
The answer may lie with men like Julian Trancredi ’12, one of the founders of Men of Kenyon. The group is aimed at helping men form a positive sense of what it means to be a man.
“A lot of times when you hear the world ‘man’ mentioned at this school it’s in a negative sense,” he said. “Because gender is not created in a vacuum, people of all genders need to get together to discuss these issues. In the small bubble that is Kenyon, there is more conversation about being a woman than being a man.”
The Men of Kenyon are working to balance that dialogue, as is the College, which last year established a faculty committee to investigate men’s issues.
Gilligan, who serves on the committee, said that one possible long-term solution to shrinking male interest in higher education is to develop a program like the Kenyon Academic Partnership that would establish classes in high schools aimed at men and focused on men’s issues.
“It wouldn’t just be about promoting academic sophistication,” Gilligan said, “but connecting young men with good ideas.” Until then, he said, “we might have to make these [admissions] adjustments until guys reach a point where they balance it out themselves.”
Kenyon still receives a strong cache of qualified male applicants, according to Delahunty.
“I wrote that article because I was mad on a Sunday,” she said of her op-ed, which sparked a national debate. “I didn’t know I was stepping on a sociological landmine.” Regardless of the societal trend, she remains optimistic that Kenyon will continue to serve talented men and women.
Last year, Gilligan audited a Kenyon class, his first in a 13-year career. “It reminded me of why you go to college,” he said. “It’s because you want to learn together, as a group. I felt like a better person after taking that class. And that’s the liberal arts experience – becoming a better person.”