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50:50 Isn’t Equal When it Comes to College Admissions

As colleges look to build their freshman classes, they have many considerations apart from academic excellence. In addition to passionate learners, they want to admit students who help to “round out” the class in other important areas: sports, the arts, and community service. Colleges also want a diverse student body, comprised of individuals from various states, races, socioeconomic backgrounds. One reason many students choose to attend college, after all, is to immerse themselves among people with different perspectives and life experiences. Finally, colleges build a class composed of male and female students, and this last distinction is worth examining to see how gender can prove an asset or, unfortunately, a liability in the admissions process.

How can gender be a liability? The more talented and academically prepared the female population is, the more difficult it is to gain acceptance into an elite, private college. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 11.5 million females will attend college this fall, compared with 8.9 million males. In other words, for every 100 males who attend, 134 females will attend. For private colleges that factor gender into admissions, this means that females need to work 34% harder, on average, than males to achieve those coveted admissions spots.

Is this a violation of Title IX discrimination regulation? Some colleges, particularly state schools, are not permitted under Title IX rules to consider an applicant’s gender in the admissions process.  As a result, these institutions are seeing the percent of female attendees exceed half. For example, the University of Georgia’s 2017 freshman class is composed of 57% females and 43% males.

However,  Title IX doesn’t apply in its entirety to all higher-education institutions, and private institutions are able to skirt around Title IX regulations related to gender discrimination in order to maintain male to female ratios. The table below shows some competitive private colleges/universities with their male/female applicant numbers and respective admit ratios. Percents that differed by more than 2 percentage points are in blue if males had a higher admit rate or pink if females had a higher admit rate.

College Male applicants Female applicants Male percent Female percent
Princeton 15157 14146 6.4% 6.7%
Stanford 23005 20992 4.5% 5.2%
MIT 13131 5889 5.8% 12.8%
Rice 9392 8844 14.7% 15.8%
Yale 14526 16919 6.8% 5.9%
Vanderbilt 14023 18419 12.3% 9.5%
Washington and Lee 2487 2614 24.4% 22.8%
Williams 3313 3672 18.1% 17.1%
Upenn 19401 19517 9.1% 9.8%
Amherst 3780 4626 16.0% 12.0%
Dartmouth 10042 10633 10.8% 10.4%
Brown 12872 19518 11.0% 8.2%
Swarthmore 3251 4455 14.8% 11.4%
U of Notre Dame 9646 9859 19.7% 17.8%
Hamilton 2343 2887 25.8% 26.3%
Bates 2364 2992 24.9% 20.9%
Georgetown 7933 12064 18.0% 16.1%
Cornell 23578 21387 12.2% 16.2%
Pomona 3123 4979 12.4% 7.6%
Duke 15543 16128 10.6% 11.0%
Tufts 8469 11754 16.8% 12.5%
Bowdoin 2869 3930 16.6% 13.6%
Davidson 2464 3154 22.2% 18.5%


Of the sample list of 23 colleges, only 2 (MIT and Cornell) saw females admitted at a less competitive rate. By contrast, 9 colleges and universities had more than a 2 percentage point difference in admit rates, preferring males. At 18 of the 23 institutions, more women than men applied, which resulted in a lower female admit rate.

What does this data mean? There is more at play than the  quantitative game of more women applying than men. As public university data show, females have had higher educational attainment rates at each education level than those for males since 2000, so one would expect to see more women admitted due to higher average high school performance. From 1990 to 2009, Female high school students maintained a higher GPA than male high school students across all core academic areas (Math, Science, English, and Social Studies). And recently, the ACT reported a higher average female composite score than that of male students (21.1 vs. 21.0). On all fronts, female students have been rocking it, yet that superior achievement actually serves as a hindrance to admission at private institutions. As more women than men graduate from high school and apply to college, the number of spaces reserved for each gender remains constant, creating increased selectivity for female applicants, and lower selectivity for male applicants.

So what’s to be done? Changes to a school’s policy or to national legislation will likely be slow, too slow to change the status quo for a current high school student. Questions must be asked as to why colleges and universities seek to maintain certain male-to-female ratios at their schools, and whether the answers justify discriminating based on a student’s gender. Additionally, the question must be raised as to why females are outperforming males in educational attainment.

For female high school students looking to apply to college in the near future, it is worth keeping in mind the emphasis (or non-emphasis) that a college will place on gender. If you have private institutions on your college list, it is worth checking their male to female ratios and seeing if they have lower acceptance percentages for either. At colleges like Brown where 50% more women applied than men, we must expect the selectivity to be more intense for female applicants. You also might consider adding some public institutions where you will be considered more equitably with male applicants.

It can feel discouraging that you might need to work harder than a male peer to get into the same school, but that should by no means keep you from setting high expectations for yourself. Once you get into those colleges, you can know that you truly earned your place.

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