The campus crusade for guys

Worried about the steadily declining number of male students, some colleges and universities appear to be practicing affirmative action for men.

Published February 15, 2006 11:08AM (EST)

Child psychologist Michael Thompson has devoted his professional life to advocating for America's boys. As the bestselling author of "Raising Cain," he's logged thousands of hours as an educational speaker and makes frequent appearences on national television as an authority on troubled young men. But Thompson is also the father of a 20-year-old daughter. And when asked if, given their much-maligned status in schools these days, boys ought to be given a leg up in college admissions, his answer is blunt: "I'd be horrified if some lunkhead boy got accepted to a school instead of my very talented and prepared daughter," he says, "just because he happened to be a guy."

But that may be just what is happening. Amid national panic over a growing academic gender gap, educators have begun to ask, might it be time to adopt affirmative action for boys?

The statistics are revealing: Fewer men apply to colleges every year and those who do disproportionately occupy the lowest quarter of the applicant pool. Thirty-five years ago, in the early days of widespread coeducation, the gender ratio on campuses averaged 43-57, female to male. Now, uniformly, the old ratios have been inverted. Across races and classes -- and to some extent, around the Western world -- women are more likely to apply to college and, once enrolled, more likely to stick around through graduation.

Even in a vacuum, discussions of gender-based affirmative action would be deeply political. But the possibility of a full-fledged battle appears especially likely these days, as we find ourselves in the middle of what's popularly known as the "war on boys." If you watch the news or read the papers, you know the soldiers: Last year, Laura Bush launched a federal initiative focused on boys who have been neglected by their schools and communities; Christina Hoff Sommers, George Gilder and Michael Gurian have swarmed the talk show circuit and editorial pages, bemoaning the lack of male role models in American schools and accusing educators of alienating boys by prizing passive, "feminized" behavior such as sitting quietly, reading independently, and focusing on sedentary rather than dynamic projects. (Though Thompson, for the record, says "education has actually become more dynamic and teaching gotten better for boys" -- and, I quote, "We used to have to hit them to keep them still.") New York Times Op-Ed writer John Tierney made waves in January with an essay warning that educational success will come back to haunt women as a dearth of educated, eligible husbands turns them into miserable spinsters -- and in a rebuttal, Nation columnist Katha Pollitt asked why, years ago when she was in school and men made up the majority, no one was worrying about whether they'd find wives. Finally, a few weeks ago, Newsweek joined the fray with an eight-page cover story by Peg Tyre, breathlessly captioned "The Boy Crisis," and laden with oversize color photos of doleful white boys, seemingly adrift in a sea of competent, well-adjusted girls.

With all this coverage, you'd be excused for thinking the debate is a recent development. But the truth is that affirmative action for men, like the gender gap itself, is simply not news. Back in 1999, a young woman filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the University of Georgia in Athens, after it was revealed that the school had attempted to balance gender on campus by awarding preference to male applicants, much the way it might build racial diversity by assigning extra admissions "points" to minority students. At the time, the school, in its defense, told the Christian Science Monitor that it was trying to reverse male flight from campus (at the time the ratio was 45-55) before it "became something bad." Unfortunately for the university, the district court judge assigned to the case wasn't convinced, ruling instead that "the desire to 'help out' men who are not earning baccalaureate degrees in the same numbers as women ... [was] far from persuasive."

Talk to admissions insiders today, though, and they'll tell you that the University of Georgia case did not so much end affirmative action for men as drive it underground. "My belief is that there are already many informal affirmative action policies," says Thompson. "It is entirely possible that a better qualified girl has not gotten into a school because admissions officers were trying to create a more even ratio." Tom Mortenson, senior policy analyst at the Pell Institute for Opportunity in Higher Education and creator of the Postsecondary Education Opportunity Newsletter, who in the mid-'90s was one of the first scholars to draw attention to the gender gap, agrees. "I know [affirmative action for boys] is being practiced, especially on liberal arts campuses where the gap is biggest," he explains, "because I've had administrators tell me so."

Last fall, their interest piqued by the flurry of news stories describing the growing chasm between boys and girls in higher education, Sandy Baum and Eban Goodstein, economics professors at Skidmore College and Lewis and Clark College, respectively, embarked on a close study of admissions data from 13 liberal arts schools, hunting for an unacknowledged preference for men in the admissions process. "I'd just read so many stories about the declining number of men applying to colleges," says Baum, "that it seemed inevitable that the disparity would or already had launched a campaign of affirmative action."

Baum and Goodstein's findings, while not conclusive, did carry weighty implications for the future of college admissions. At the time of their research, explains Baum, the incoming class at every school they studied was still composed of more than 50 percent girls, which made sweeping pronouncements about the prevalence of affirmative action difficult to support. And their profiles of male and female applicants were based primarily on statistical data -- a standardized test score or GPA -- thereby preventing them from taking into account many of the murky intangibles, like extracurricular activities, recommendations and personal essays, on which many admissions officers rely.

Still, in the case of schools where the gender imbalance was most acute -- at colleges that were once single-sex, for instance -- and where women consistently accounted for more than 60 percent of applicants, Baum and Goodstein did find compelling evidence that male students had a statistically greater probability of being accepted than female students of comparable qualifications. Their conclusion? "There seems to be a kind of affirmative action tipping point that occurs when an application pool becomes too heavily weighted toward women. But the interesting thing is that that point is by no means the 50-50 mark -- it's likely closer to 40-60," explains Baum. "So while we did not find widespread gender preferencing, given the trends on campuses, with more and more schools approaching that tipping point, we could certainly see a big change."

And it's not just former women's colleges facing a 40-60 divide anymore. A quick survey of colleges and universities around the nation found that Kalamazoo College in Michigan comes in at 45-55, the University of New Mexico at 43-57, New York University at 40-60, and Howard University at 34-66 (low-income, minority men and women are most affected by the educational gender gap). Michael Barron, director of admissions at the University of Iowa, has watched his school's 44-56 ratio hold steady throughout his nearly two-decade tenure at the university. "We just have consistently had more women than men, and I know there's a lot of schools -- like the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for example -- that have been even closer to 40-60 for quite some time," he says. As a state-supported institution that, according to Barron, "has a stewardship responsibility to accept students regardless of issues of gender or race," Iowa maintains that it has no intention of "either consciously or subconsciously" differentiating between men and women in the admissions process." But, Barron admits, "I wouldn't want it said that we are unconcerned. We are watchful and mindful and will be looking to see what happens ... and whether there is a role for colleges and universities to play as part of the solution."

Karen Parker, director of admissions at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., reports that for the past three years her entering classes have had an average ratio of 41-59, and that men only account for 38 percent of applicants. "I don't believe that the school needs to be exactly 50-50, but from a cultural standpoint, I do think it's important that we have men engaged," she says. "Hampshire doesn't practice affirmative action right now -- but I certainly can't say we won't in the future. It's a really perplexing problem and just not a good sign of things to come."

But schools that have not gone so far as to accept male students over more qualified women are still finding ways to shift their admissions agenda toward young men. "There are things schools can and do do," says Christina Hoff Sommers, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and author of "Who Stole Feminism?" and "The War Against Boys." "Strengthening their engineering departments, getting a hockey team. Some schools are changing admission documents to appeal to male minds -- and I know we're supposed to pretend there's no difference [between male and female minds], but anyone in advertising will tell you there is.

And for sure, many colleges are banking on these differences. "At our national conference each year we invariably have a speaker devoted specifically to recruiting boys," explains David Hawkins, the director of public policy at the National Association of College Admission Counseling. "Now most four-year colleges work with their own internal marketing department or contract out to an independent agency that tailors their marketing to young men -- and they are very, very aggressive."

Since teenage boys are often crazy about technology, a number of universities, including Case Western Reserve, Seton Hill and MIT (which, admittedly, at 57-43, doesn't seem to have a problem attracting men), have launched admission-oriented blogs designed to offer an intimate, uncensored look at college life. Other schools take a more subliminal approach, by packing their catalogs with pictures of smiling, confident young men and playing up dark, "masculine" color schemes in mailings.

"There is no doubt that schools are trying to market themselves to boys now, just the way they did to women 30 years ago," says Joseph Tweed, president-elect of the New York State Association of College Counselors and director of college counseling at the Trinity-Pawling School, a private all-boys school in upstate New York. "Everyone is asking, 'How do we do this? Do we change the structure of classes? Do we send out glossier materials?' But I think what worries educators the most is that boys don't seem as focused on the process as girls. [Boys] seem to feel they'll be OK, whereas with girls there's still a sense that if they don't do well, don't go to college, there'll be a consequence that will be negative."

Tweed's point raises a controversial question that most crusaders in the "war on boys" would rather dismiss. Despite their flagging performance in elementary and high school, men have hardly abdicated their power to women. While women may have held the majority in higher education for more than a decade, men still earn more than women, still hold the vast number of tenure-track university positions. Women possess executive positions at less than 2 percent of Fortune 500 companies. Could it be that men aren't going to college because they don't have to?

According to Laura Perna, assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Maryland, the gender gap is all about economics. Last fall, Perna published a paper in the Review of Higher Education in which she determined that young women might be more motivated to pursue higher education because, consciously or unconsciously, they sense that there are real economic advantages at stake. Her examination of a Department of Education sample of more than 9,000 high school students, interviewed over a period of eight years, revealed that women with bachelor's degrees earn 24 percent more than women without, while young men with bachelor's degrees experience no significant economic gains. For practical proof of her hypothesis, one need only consider that most well-paid, skilled, blue-collar professions continue to be dominated by men -- while minimum-wage jobs in hospitality and service remain the province of women.

Tom Mortenson, of Opportunity, remains skeptical. "I've heard that story, but think of it this way -- men have had a 3,000-year head start, while everything women have accomplished has largely been in the last 30 years," he says. "So yes, if you're a big, strong guy, there are jobs out there. But the fields that are growing fastest are in healthcare, education, leisure and travel, and the services -- all areas that women are better at than we are. So if guys want access to that world, they'd better get an education that qualifies them. Because they won't be big and strong forever." In the future Mortenson imagines, America's changing economy leaves generations of unprepared, aimless, undereducated and emasculated men wasting away, taking the health and happiness of their wives and families with them. But as with Tierney and some of the other boy crusaders, some of Mortenson's greatest fears aren't focused on the perils facing men who lose course in school, but on the freedoms of women who don't. "On the one hand, you want to embrace the success of women," he tells me. "Yet, as more and more women substitute careers for having babies, I've come to see that we're looking at a population crisis. The most educated women have the fewest children -- this is not rocket science, it's just the way things work. We need women to have 2.1 children [in order to maintain the U.S. population], but the recent Census Bureau reports show that American women with bachelor's degrees average only 1.7. You can do the math -- if we continue this way the white population is headed for extinction."

Having worked for decades to increase educational opportunities across class, race and gender lines, Mortenson knows his talk about women's responsibility to preserve the species will get him in trouble -- indeed, it already has. He says his daughter, age 29 and childless (but equipped with a master's degree), won't speak to him on the subject. But even his fatherly concern ("I want my daughter to have it all, but I worry that in old age she'll be lonely") can't disguise some of the insidious implications underneath those concerns: that educated white women might single-handedly be responsible for the decline of Western civilization.

In the fall 2005 issue of Ms. magazine, Phyllis Rosser wrote that rather than being "celebrated for [our] landmark achievements, [women] have engendered fear," and offers up this fact, conspicuously absent from most media coverage of the gender gap: "There has been no decline in bachelor's degrees awarded to men," she writes. "The numbers awarded to women have simply increased." Put simply, in the words of Jacqueline King, director of the Center of Policy Analysis at the American Council of Education, who is quoted in Rosser's piece, "The [real news] story is not one of male failure, or even lack of opportunity -- but rather one of increased academic success among females and minorities."

The boy crusaders believe that the seeds of academic failure are planted in primary school, which raises the question: Why are we waiting until college to redress the problem? "I've read many reports that male middle-school students are lagging behind their female counterparts," says Michael Barron. "So it seems to me that that's where we need to look. Because the fact is, all we have available to us, once people begin applying to college, is a product of what they've done before. Our reaction has to come sooner."

Until that happens, however, and should current enrollment trends continue, it's reasonable to assume that creative forms of admissions preferencing will continue to stir debate. As our phone conversation ends, Michael Thompson's voice turns grave. "I want to make very clear that I do not subscribe to this notion of a 'war' on boys," he says. "I think we have been living in a very exciting time when we have taken the shackles off of girls in education. I loved what feminism did for girls -- we got inside them and understood them. My personal mission just happens to be to get people to think about boys with the same depth."

This story has been corrected since it was first published.

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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