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University News

Brown consistently admits male applicants at higher rate

U. received 50 percent more applications from women than men in 2014-15 application cycle

Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 30, 2016

With the early decision admission process underway, one factor may hold more weight than applicants realize: gender. For the past 15 years, the University has accepted male applicants at a rate 3 to 4 percentage points higher than that of female applicants.

While this phenomenon is not specific to Brown, it has caught the eye of one particular alum. In a column in the Washington Post, Jon Birger ’90 claims that many private colleges and universities, including his alma mater, “discriminate against female applicants.”

While Brown’s female applicants are accepted at a lower rate than males, they have still comprised the majority of the undergraduate student body since 1994, when female enrollment first outpaced male enrollment at the undergraduate level.

“It shouldn’t be twice as hard for the women to get in based on their gender,” Birger told The Herald. “They shouldn’t be taking gender into consideration.”

This spring, the University will celebrate 125 years of women on campus, culminating in an alumni conference. “Here is Brown patting itself on the back while, for the last 10 years, they’ve been blatantly discriminating against women,” Birger said.

Gender balance

For the 2014-15 application cycle, the University received roughly 50 percent more female applicants than male. From this lopsided applicant pool, 11 percent of males were admitted versus 8 percent of females, ultimately producing a freshman class with a 54-46 female-male gender ratio for the class of 2019.

“We’re trying to bring in a class of interesting, talented students from diverse backgrounds, but gender balance is critically important to us,” said Logan Powell, dean of admission. “We do strive to have gender balance on campus, so being close to 50-50 would always be our goal. But we’re never going to make a decision on the basis of gender alone.”

Gender balance is a goal in admission offices across the country, particularly at liberal arts colleges. “Today, a lot of the private schools are obsessed with keeping their gender ratio as close to 50-50 as possible,” said Birger, who explores the issue of gender ratios in his book “Date-Onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game.”

If 50-50 is the goal, then a female-male ratio of 60-40 seems to be the upper limit that colleges are willing to hit.

“If you look at, for the most part, smaller liberal arts colleges, they are in a position where they really do have to make some decisions on the basis of gender. Otherwise, their gender balance would begin to be higher than 60 percent female. And I think for those small liberal arts colleges, that’s the tipping point,” Powell said.

This unspoken upper limit for female enrollment is not a new phenomenon. In 2006, Kenyon College’s Associate Dean of Admissions Jennifer Delahunty Britz wrote a New York Times op-ed that notes the 60 percent tipping point, a threshold that, when passed, elicits “a hint of desperation in the voices of admissions officers,” she wrote.

The fear is that, once an undergraduate student body becomes more than 60 percent female, the school will be less appealing to both male and female applicants.

“Once you become decidedly female in enrollment, fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive,” Britz wrote.

But Birger said he doesn’t find this a compelling reason to admit male and female applicants at different rates. “Putting your thumb on the scale and fixing the admissions process to make the social scene more palatable — I don’t think that’s right,” he said.

But Powell maintains that the University has yet to reach this “tipping point,” at which “you really do have to start thinking about some very deliberate actions, either on the recruiting side … or deliberately in the admissions process,” he said.

“We do not do that. We do not recruit men any differently than we do women. We don’t admit men any differently than we do women.”

How it’s legal

Had both male and female applicants to the Brown University class of 2019 been admitted at the average rate of 9.5 percent, the admitted students would have been 60 percent female, broaching the “tipping point” territory.

Instead, the University admitted female applicants more selectively to yield a freshman class with a gender ratio closer to 50-50.

Private colleges and universities like Brown are able to consider gender as a factor for admission due to a so-called “loophole” in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

“The original Title IX, as people began to think about introducing it, was ‘no sex discrimination in any school that gets federal funds,’” said Bernice Sandler, a women’s rights activist and key figure in the creation of Title IX.

But lobbyists from private colleges and universities — particularly those in the Ivy League — opposed certain facets of the law and fought to maintain their ability to consider gender when admitting undergraduate students. Adding an exemption for private institutions seemed like the only way to get Title IX passed, so the modification was made to the legislation, Sander said.

“When Title IX was being passed, this was the most important change in the law,” Sandler said. “Originally, it was no discrimination,” but “we couldn’t get anybody to support it.”

When Title IX became law in 1972, it dictated that “private schools are allowed to discriminate on the basis of sex” in admission, a change to the legislation that Sandler said she “tried to fight.”

Today, private colleges and universities use this loophole to maintain gender balance in their undergraduate populations despite the dearth of male applicants.

Sandler still laments the loophole. “It’s there, and I’m still unhappy about it because it does mean that some of the men (who) are accepted aren’t as smart as some of the women they turn away,” she said, speaking to the national issue at private colleges and universities across the country.

Where are the boys?

In addition to considering gender the admission process, some schools are investing in efforts that they hope will attract more male applicants.

Just this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that in the last 10 years, 86 colleges and universities have added football programs to their campuses to address the gender disparity, and 67 of these schools saw an immediate increase in male enrollment.

Other schools may be enhancing certain academic programs in hopes of attracting more male applicants.

In recent years, the University has invested $88 million in a new engineering building, slated to be completed in early 2018.

“The fact that they’re investing in a program that has more men than women is not a coincidence,” Birger said.

In the spring of 2016, 65 percent of engineering degrees granted by the University went to male graduates. Additionally, 66 percent of the degrees that the University granted in physical science went to male graduates. And for the class of 2020, there were 16 percent more male applicants interested in physical sciences than female applicants, Powell said.

The University’s acceptance of males and females at different rates stems from “a real attempt to try to recruit, admit and enroll more students, male or female, interested in the physical sciences,” and “it just happens to be the case that there are more young men interested in the physical sciences than there are young women interested in the physical sciences,” Powell added.

“In my perfect world, (the School of Engineering) is equally compelling to young men and young women,” Powell said. But, he added, “the fact that we have an engineering program — and many liberal arts colleges do not — is a big driving force behind who is interested in Brown by gender.”

Powell said there is “nothing deliberate on our part” to reach the 3 to 4 percentage point difference in male and female admission rates, but rather that this statistic is actually “a reflection of our attempt to strengthen particular academic programs,” he said.

As the University aims to bolster its presence in the physical sciences, male applicants are inadvertently favored in the admission process, Powell said.

“As an alum,” Birger said, he is “skeptical” of this argument.

“No matter what the motivation is, it’s clear that they are favoring male applicants,” Birger said. “Which is more important to you, having fair, sex-blind admissions, or filling every seat in a particular department?”

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  1. So, in the uber-liberal world of Brown, where identity politics dominates, it’s OK, for purposes of “diversity,” to give affirmative priority to certain minority groups (blacks, hispanics, first-gens, et al.) in the admission process in order to “enhance” the college experience by better reflecting in the student body the minority group composition in society, but, when it comes to male applicants, that objective is not viewed as equally salutary but, rather, as discriminatory. Does the hypocrisy of the left have any bounds?

    • I don’t think the purpose of affirmative action is for the college population to reflect the population of the country as a whole. After all, the percentage of black/African American students at Brown is about half of the national average (~7% vs. 12%), and there are similar discrepancies with other racial/ethnic groups. Also, whether or not they actually happen behind closed doors, racial quotas are unconstitutional (Regents of University of California v. Bakke, 1978). In this article, it seems like there is at least a soft quota that female applicants shouldn’t make up more than 50 to 60% of the class.

  2. Thanks for writing this interesting and balanced article! Good to point out that this is a national phenomenon, not just limited to Brown. I wonder why fewer men are choosing to go to college in general? Also interesting to think about in the context of single-sex institutions. Would more women’s colleges help fix this gender imbalance at co-ed institutions?

  3. Fantastic article! Brown is also presently accused of discriminating asian students:

    Brown has a storied history with Title IX. Did Brown play a role in the lobbying to retain gender as a permissible factor in admissions?

  4. This is an interesting article. The Washington Post column by Jon Birger ’90 is an example of how statistics can be misleading or deliberately used to make misleading arguments.

    In 2016, 1.6 million graduating high school seniors took the SAT. That means 160,000 college-bound students scored in the 90th percentile or better. Brown received 32,000 applications for the class of 2020.

    If Brown received 50% more applications from women, that means 12,800 men applied for the class of 2020 – enough to fill a class entirely of male students many times over.

    In The Post, Birger ’90 argues that Brown discriminates against female applicants, when what he’s really observing is just a function of greater interest by women in Brown University. Without statistics indicating that average SAT scores of admitted male students are lower than their female counterparts, Birger’s argument is dead in the water.

    Why aren’t more men interested in Brown? There are certainly enough college-bound males graduating from high school with qualifying grades and SAT scores.

    Perhaps the answer lies in other statistics like Brown grads earning less than their Ivy peers, or the political climate on campus, or the comparative weakness of our computer science, engineering, and business programs. Maybe there is something amiss with Brown’s reputation amongst prospective students.

    It would be interesting to compare the gender profile of applicant pools at colleges like Cornell, Princeton, and U. Chicago, and try to identify the reasons behind those schools’ appeal to male applicants.

    • The “boy problem,” so to speak, is not unique to Brown’s applicant pool. Since 2000, there have been 33% more women than man graduating from college nationally. The US Department of Education projects that that figure will hit 47% next decade… As for your other point, studies on academic achievement show that high school girls generally outperform high school boys, which is why about 70% of HS valedictorians are girls. And while the Brown admissions office does not release GPA or standardized test score data by gender, Brown’s graduation-rate data is available by gender. There are multiple factors that influence graduation rates, but here’s what the data shows: According to the US Department of Education, for the 10 years ending in 2013-2014 academic year, the percentage of Brown women who successfully graduated within six years averaged more than two percentage points higher than the graduation rate for Brown men.

      • Mr. Birger, you again inadvertently reveal a poor aptitude when dealing with statistics.

        The Brown case can’t be explained by pointing to national figures of ALL graduating high school students. That boys are less successful at lower levels of study or are choosing not to pursue higher education nationwide is indeed a real (and troubling) phenomenon.

        Applicants to Brown, however, come from a different cohort of high school students. The relevant group in this case are ALL college-bound and are sufficiently qualified to attend elite colleges.

        If just a single example among Brown’s peer institutions can be found that attracts the same number of male applicants as female applicants, then your argument fails.

        To your final claim, according to US News, Brown’s student body is 53% female and 47% male. If six year graduation rates are an indicator of college success, according to your statistics, Brown’s male students might in fact be doing BETTER at Brown when one accounts for greater attrition in STEM fields than their female classmates, notwithstanding Brown’s greater appeal to female applicants.

        When dealing with graduation figures, comparing percentages of unequal groups is misleading. The information of interest is at the individual level. Assuming six-year graduation rates of 95% for women and 93% for men in a class of 1,600 students, 10 more males fail to graduate than their female classmates. This number can be accounted for just by comparing STEM field participation. Here again, your argument is dead in the water.

        • Alum ’97, clearly I am not going to convince you, which is fine. For the record, however, I disagree vehemently with your assumption that Brown women are taking easier classes than their male peers. While I hate to even dignify such a suggestion with a response, you might want to check out this Brown press release and (especially) the accompanying photo: … Signing off

          • I appreciate your effort to explore the topic. For the record and to make sure everyone is playing fair, I don’t believe the women of Brown are less talented or unworthy of Fulbright Scholarships.

            STEM participation and attrition rates at Brown are well documented. For example, the number of junior year declared majors in the School of Engineering vs. the senior year graduation numbers of those same students are available for anyone to find online.

            My point here is to highlight the misuse of statistics in an attempt to paint Brown as somehow discriminatory against female applicants. Those counter-arguments ought to be ‘dignified’ with a response, and if a successful defense isn’t available, then the original claim should be re-evaluated.

  5. I mean I wouldn’t exactly call this too egregious of a gender imbalance… Just look at any engineering school and you’ll see the reverse phenomenon, and to significantly greater extents. In the 2015-16 admissions cycle at MIT, 780 males were accepted from a pool of 12,750–a rate of 6.12%–whereas 739 females were accepted from a pool of 5,556–a rate of 13.3%–meaning women are 2.17 times as likely as men to be accepted to MIT.

    At CalTech, 309/4832 men were accepted–rate of 6.39%–and 267/1693 women were accepted–rate of 15.8%–making it 2.47 times as likely to be accepted to CalTech as a female.

    At Brown, 1350/12292 men—11.0%—vs. 1525/18104 women—8.42%. So men are 1.31 times as likely to be accepted to Brown as women –> not quite in the same echelon of disparity as the prior two examples…

    • Alum ’12, both MIT and Cal-Tech are private colleges, which means they too are exempt from Title IX when it comes to undergraduate admissions. Studies do show that women earn materially better grades than men in college STEM classes (as they do in all subjects, actually), so it’s not entirely illogical that these schools would slightly favor female applicants. Nevertheless, I do believe the large admissions-rate discrepancies you reference reflect these schools exploiting the Title IX loophole in order to prioritize gender balance over fairness.

  6. Gretl Hartmann says:

    Isn’t it sexist to refer to people as male or female? Isn’t title IX moot in a post gender World?

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