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Why do men fare better than women in the college admission process?

Experts discuss possible reasons

<p>Now that the union has received official and voluntary recognition from the University, BPLO representatives and University administrators can begin contract negotiations. </p>

Now that the union has received official and voluntary recognition from the University, BPLO representatives and University administrators can begin contract negotiations.

For first-years admitted in the fall of 2023, Brown’s acceptance rate for male applicants was 6.9%, and the acceptance rate for female applicants was 4.2%, according to the University’s Common Data Set

Despite an applicant pool of 19,666 men and 31,650 women, Brown still admitted a first-year class with an almost perfect 50/50 ratio of men to women. As a whole, the undergraduate population has a male-to-female ratio of 46/54. Federal methodology requires institutions to report applicants’ sex assigned at birth.

Brown’s admissions data mirrors a nationwide pattern: Since the 1980s, female enrollment has consistently surpassed male enrollment among institutions of higher education. Brown alum Peg Tyre ’83, Vice President of the EGF Accelerator — an accelerator for education nonprofits — provided some insight on the topic in book “The Trouble With Boys.”

In the book, which investigates why many young boys struggle in school, Tyre explains that while gender balancing is important for colleges in order to attract applicants, it poses a challenge during the admissions process. 


“Most applicants want to go to college in an environment that has a gender balance … Except girls who apply are much more qualified than boys,” she told The Herald.

Colleges will “put a little finger on the scale so that the differential is not greater than 60/40, because once it gets to 70/30, not only are boys not applying, but then girls don't apply,” she added.

Tyre, citing data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, attributed these numbers to higher participation in extracurricular activities and advanced classes, as well as better grades, among girls. 

In her opinion, this disparity is caused by inequity in early education: Boys are more likely to be expelled from preschool and diagnosed with behavioral disorders. 

This “sets a precedent,” she argues, that “school is not for” boys. She also cited differences in literacy, as boys typically fall behind girls when learning how to read at a young age.

Once in college, the trend continues. “Boys do less well in college. They get more Cs and Ds. They do less homework,” she said. 

But, Tyre claims, the academic success of young girls does not directly translate to professional success. Tyre attributes this partially to the social expectations placed on women, particularly with the societal expectation of motherhood. 

She also outlines a counterintuitive link between the academic excellence of young women and their underperformance in the workforce. “I think that we raise girls to be rule followers … On the other hand, men are choosier about where they’re going to expend their energy, and I think that works for them in the workforce. Men are more comfortable breaking rules,” she said.

She sympathizes with the frustrations of girls who have a harder time getting accepted into college than their male counterparts, despite their academic excellence, and called the practice of gender balancing “unfair and exhausting.” For Tyre, solving this disparity goes hand-in-hand with improving educational opportunities for young boys. 

Cathleen Sheils, a college counselor for Solomon Admissions Consulting and a former admissions officer for Cornell University, explained how this plays into her work advising students. 


Sheils said that gender comes up with her clients “when we have the demographic conversation,” during which she gives students information on how their race, ethnicity, where they live and their gender could impact where they are admitted. 

She explains that simply being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field is no longer enough to make an application stand out. 

During her time as an admissions counselor at Cornell, she watched as more and more women began to apply to then-male-dominated fields. 

As an example, Shiels pointed to Animal Science as “a major that… in the early 2000s, was predominantly male. Then, in 2015, 2016, it became a predominantly female applicant pool, where we actually had to act affirmatively for male applicants.”

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She attributes this to the efforts to empower women to go into STEM fields and a lack of encouragement for male students to study the humanities. “Humanities and social sciences, I think, have been seen as female majors,” she said, and urged the education system to “support young men in those fields.”

“I think we’ve empowered women to be like ‘I can be anything, I can do anything,’ and now it's reality, right? … In some ways, I think men are stepping aside,” she said. “I think the next evolution is how do we do this collectively? One doesn't have to displace the other.” 

She also attributed the diminishing number of male applicants in humanities fields to a lack of representation in educational institutions, citing a paucity of male teachers in schools. 

But during the admissions process, this disparity in male and female high school performance can be an advantage for male applicants. Sheils used Brown as an example, saying that “female applicants know that they are a little disadvantaged in the Brown applicant pool.” As a result, “male applicants, especially in humanities and social science, might feel like maybe Brown is a good option,” and Sheils might encourage them to apply.

Despite questions of fairness, Sheils sees the advantages to gender balancing. “Ideally, we want the classroom environment to be rich with diversity of opinion and experience,” Sheils said, and she believes that gender is an important piece of that diversity. She emphasized that Cornell took a “holistic” approach towards evaluating gender during her time there.

Sheils was careful, though, to clarify that she sees gender balancing as something that only exists at very selective schools. 

Sourav Guha, the executive director of the Consortium of High Achievement and Success and adjunct instructor of government at Connecticut College, agreed with this sentiment. Guha also served as assistant dean of admissions at Wesleyan — an institution with a heavily female applicant pool.

His experience at Wesleyan, when compared to Connecticut College, showed him that gender balancing is primarily a concern at more prestigious institutions whose larger applicant pool allows for greater selectivity during the admissions process. 

“Girls, overall, are far more successful in high school than boys,” he explained, expanding that this results in the pool of boys who meet the academic standards of the school being smaller than the pool of qualified girls. This could lead to a problem for schools with limited applicants to begin with.

“The further down you go on the pecking order, you’re gonna start running out of options,” Guha said. “The top schools will have taken the top boys, and then it's about how much you're willing to compromise on the academics to get closer and closer to balance.” 

He has observed this trend since he began working at Wesleyan in 2001, and has only seen it become more dramatic over time, saying that “in aggregate, girls are seemingly stronger and stronger relative to boys with each passing year.”

Guha attributes this to differences in cultural expectations for men and women. He explained that at Wesleyan, the academic standards for female recruited athletes were much higher than for male recruited athletes. 

“Girls typically can’t use athletic excellence as an excuse to not be good at other things, whereas masculinity in the United States operates a little bit differently,” Guha said. 

He thought that a culturally held “boys will be boys” mentality causes young men to be held to a lower standard. But because male academic underperformance does not seem to translate into their careers, young men feel little pressure to work harder in school.

“In hiring and promotion, whether it's in the professoriate or corporate America or anywhere else, there are clearly still various barriers and glass ceilings for women versus men …  Women have to be great, and even if you are, you might not be recognized, but a man can be mediocre and get away with it.”

Guha also highlights the parallels between how race and gender are factored into admissions. “What’s striking to me is that we take for granted that it's natural and desirable to have that 50/50 gender balance,” he said. 

Guha also said that this gender balancing differs from racial balancing as people are less likely to question whether men are “‘deserving’ or ‘qualified.’” In comparison, racial balancing often carries a stigma that causes many to doubt the qualifications of applicants with racial minority identities. 

Another difference between racial and gender balancing is legality: while the Supreme Court ruled that race-based affirmative action is unconstitutional last year, they said nothing about gender.

In a message to The Herald, Emily Martin, the chief program officer at the National Women’s Law Center, shed some light on the legal questions at play.

“For private institutions, federal law actually has very little to say about gender balancing in college admissions — which is a surprise to most people. This is because Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, has an exemption for undergraduate admissions to private institutions,” she wrote. “Title IX otherwise applies to private colleges — but not in admissions.” 

She also touched on the 14th amendment, saying that it only applies “to state actors—that is, public colleges and universities.” Though no major court case has cast a definitive decision on the matter. 

In the decision which banned affirmative action in college admissions, the Supreme Court was interpreting the 14th amendment in conjunction with Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, so while their decision applied to all colleges and universities, the 14th amendment as it relates to gender balancing may only impact public schools. 

Martin speculates that colleges engage in gender balancing to create diversity so that one gender will not feel “unwelcome or out of place.” 

But she points out that putting women at a disadvantage in the admissions process “feels unfair,” and she finds it “hard to argue that boys and men face social and cultural obstacles in their education that women do not and that gender balancing corrects for.” 

She worries that gender balancing “can feed a stereotyped expectation that we have higher standards for women and girls while men and boys are allowed to make mistakes. In the professional world, that shows up as rewarding women for their accomplishments and men for their potential. Gender balancing in admissions can perpetuate this sort of gender stereotyping,” she wrote.

She believes that if colleges were more open about their admissions process, they could facilitate a more productive conversation about gender in academics. 

If colleges “don't want to talk about that because they are sort of ashamed of imposing higher standards for women, that's revealing too and suggests that maybe they should shift how they approach these issues,” she said.

Kate Butts

Kate Butts is a Senior Staff Writer covering University Hall. Outside of the Herald, she loves running, board games and Trader Joe's snacks.

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