Gender gap at Brown reflects national trend

By
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

In line with a national trend, women outnumber men in terms of applicants to Brown, those accepted to the College and undergraduates enrolled.

The admitted class of 2011 was 53 percent female, while the current undergraduate population is 52 percent female. Women made up an even greater proportion of the applicant pool – 59 percent of applicants to the College this year were female, down slightly from 60 percent last year.

Women have a lower acceptance rate than men do primarily because of low female representation in certain disciplines, said Dean of Admission Jim Miller ’73. “As we shift our emphasis slightly to science and engineering in the admission process, that tends to be more male-heavy in the applicant pool than some of the other disciplines,” Miller said, adding that Brown is “looking for female scientists and engineers.”

The higher percentage of women at Brown mirrors a broader national trend. In 1970, women made up 42 percent of the U.S. undergraduate population, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the Department of Education. That figure rose to 57 percent as of July 2006, according to a report by the American Council on Education, a higher education research organization.

According to a 2006 NCES report, “women’s undergraduate enrollment has increased more than twice as fast as men’s” since 1970. “From 2006 to 2015, both men’s and women’s undergraduate enrollments are projected to increase. … Women’s undergraduate enrollment is projected to continue growing faster than men’s enrollment.”

The growing gender gap extends beyond the United States, said Tom Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

“When I look at the international data, what’s going on in the U.S. is typical,” Mortenson said. “It’s true in almost every country in the world, except in sub-Saharan Africa.”

At 52 percent, the percentage of Brown students who are female is slightly larger than it is at other Ivy League schools. Columbia University had a 48 percent undergraduate female enrollment rate in the fall of 2005, and Cornell University was then 50 percent female. This academic year, Princeton University’s female enrollment rate was 46.5 percent, Yale University was 49.3 percent female and the University of Pennsylvania was 51.9 percent female. Dartmouth College was 49 percent female, according to an undated figure on its Web site.

Mortenson said the gender gap is more evident at most colleges and universities than at elite schools. “Highly selective schools can pick anybody they want. Less selective schools are more driven by the underlying demographic forces,” he said.

“There is a much more even gender distribution at more elite schools,” said Sara Mead, senior policy analyst at Education Sector, an education policy think tank. “These are schools where they have many more qualified applicants than they can serve, so they’re able to choose who they enroll. They have plenty of qualified men and plenty of qualified women to fill their class.”

Mead and Mortenson both said the gender gap is especially pronounced among black college students – the gap shows up more at “historically black universities where 60 percent or over 60 percent of African-American students are women,” Mead said.

Miller said the gender gap is a complex issue. “There are myriad theories about the gender imbalance, and it really is a national issue. It extends through all different populations and all different racial and ethnic groups.”

Mortenson said the gender gap is partly due to inferior male academic performance in elementary and secondary schools. “It looks like the classroom environment is far more favorable to girls and almost hostile to boys,” he said, leading to lower college attendance.

“There are also some differences in economic incentives facing women,” Mead said. “The opportunity cost (of college attendance) would be higher for lower-income men than for women. The types of jobs that men could get right out of high school pay more than the jobs that women could get.”

The gender gap could affect the U.S. economy in the long run, Mortenson said.

“Jobs that are being created require ever higher levels of post-secondary education and training,” he said. “Men are not adapting to the new world, and women certainly are. The concern I have is that men’s lives are going to be very rough unless many more of them start going to college.”

Students interviewed by The Herald said Brown’s open curriculum and progressive atmosphere may make it more attractive to female applicants.

“A lot of the guys I know were kind of nervous about how it’s so unstructured here, as far as the curriculum goes,” said Chantal Tape ’09. “Maybe girls are more flexible about that.”

“Because of other progressive aspects of the University, perhaps women applicants feel like they can be more accepted as women who are striving to succeed in academia or whatever else they are trying to succeed at,” said Will Emmons ’09.

But most students said they were not particularly concerned about the gender gap. “It just seems like more of a curious phenomenon than a problem,” said Jake Kline ’10. “I don’t think it’s a huge issue if there are more women than guys.”

“If the trend continues, I think Brown needs to think about what it’s doing that isn’t attracting men,” Tape said.