Last month I wrote a feature for Salon that asked whether, given the growing gender imbalance on college campuses, schools might soon start instituting sex-based affirmative action. While reporting that story, I spoke with college admissions officers and high school guidance counselors around the country, most of whom confirmed that such policies were already informally in use at many universities and spoke at length about the unease that they, and their colleagues, felt concerning the educational gender gap. But -- and this was frustrating, though predictable -- most admissions officers stopped short of admitting that the sex of an applicant was ever grounds for evaluation behind the closed doors of their own conference rooms.
So, it was validating -- if also troubling -- to read an Op-Ed in today's New York Times, "To All the Girls I've Rejected" by Jennifer Delahunty Britz, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College in Ohio. In it, Britz -- who has a college-age daughter of her own -- apologizes to girls she's had to reject, despite their "passion for poetry, their desire to discover vaccines and their conviction that they can make the world a better place." She explains how complicated the college admissions climate now seems in comparison with her own youth, 30 years ago, when "applying to college was only a tad more difficult than signing up for a membership at the Y." And she confirms that more often than not it is extremely talented, eminently qualified young women -- simply because of their swelling ranks -- who will find skinny envelopes waiting in their mailboxes this spring.
Britz is quick to reassure the reader that she and other admissions officers weigh their decisions with gravity. And given that she comes out of the highly secretive, elite world of college admissions, her candor is admirable. In the end, Britz has more questions than answers: "We have told today's young women that the world is their oyster; the problem is, so many of them believed us that the standards for admission to today's most selective colleges are stiffer for women than men. How's that for an unintended consequence of the women's liberation movement? ... Should [gender balance] trump the qualifications of talented young female applicants? ... What are the consequences of young men discovering that even if they do less, they have more options?"
No doubt, this is a conversation that is only beginning. But Britz's questions are ones that everyone in education would be wise to consider. "In the meantime," Britz writes, "I'm sending out waitlist and rejection letters for nearly 3,000 students. Unfortunately, a majority of them will be female, young women just like my daughter. I will linger over letters, remembering individual students I've met, essays I loved, accomplishments I've admired. I know all too well that parents will ache when their talented daughters read the letters and will feel a bolt of anger at the college admissions officers who didn't recognize how special their daughters are."