Kenyon’s Confession

I have been a bit surprised at how surprised some observers are about Jennifer Delahunty Britz’ op-ed piece in the New York Times regarding the role of gender in the admissions process at many selective private colleges and universities.

Britz revealed that Kenyon is forced to turn away a disproportionate amount of qualified female applicants in order to achieve an approximate balance between male and female students in their admitted class, due to the fact that a higher number of qualified women apply than men. Some of the angry responses, such as Katha Pollitt’s in The Nation, attack Kenyon directly as if their policy is an offensive aberration that needs to be opposed. Unfortunately for anyone who objects to this approach, it’s actually pretty common.

In fact, this approach is part of a wide range of attributes that the logic of selective admissions favors in similarly unbalanced fashion. Better to be from Alaska than New York City. Better to be a first-generation college student–or a legacy. Better to be a person of color, unless you’re of East Asian descent. Better to have a highly anomalous talent or background than be a valedictorian and student body president. And so on. Anybody who reads Jacques Steinberg’s The Gatekeepers, on a single year’s admissions process at Wesleyan, will get a fairly good sense of the complicated, sometimes almost absurdly intricate, ambitions for a range of identities, experiences and aptitudes that go into composing an ideal class at a selective institution. (Pollitt especially should read it, since she frets about whether Wesleyan does what Kenyon does. Answer: yeah, probably.) Of course, this is also just highly selective private institutions we’re talking about here: major public institutions are another matter, as are less selective private ones.

There’s a hubris involved in the whole process, a kind of social engineering that is sometimes bizarrely fine-grained when you get down to the readings that particular admissions officers offer of particular dossiers. None of these schools are admitting true wild cards: there is a pretty narrow respectable range to the “diversity” they seek. On the other hand, all of them could probably fill an entire class with nothing but highly accomplished white men and women from upper middle-class backgrounds whose main declared educational ambitions would be to major in economics or biology. They don’t primarily because they feel that this would ultimately harm the appeal of their educational program to future applicants and negatively affect the overall health and vigor of the institution. Hence the disproportionate desire to admit students from South Dakota, Native American students, students who’ve spent their spare time in high school fighting Guinea worm in Nigeria or breeding champion pigs in Nebraska–and men, when the applicant pool is strongly tilted towards women.

If you don’t like this approach when it comes to gender, then arguably you don’t like it when it comes to race, ethnicity, geographical origin, and even accomplishment when accomplishment is not directly connected to probable academic success. If you think this is valid on everything but gender (as Pollitt seems to), I’d like to hear how you see the difference. I think you could make a good argument for simply randomizing the admissions process at most selective universities and colleges (e.g., set a high minimum range of admissions criteria and leave it at that), but that would be a big change–I have a colleague here who has seriously advocated that shift. That would probably leave you with a student body that was as much as 60% women and other demographic shifts as well. You’d lose the ability to try and ensure a balance of academic interests and plans among your admitted students as well, with some likely consequences. There might be other ways to make the admissions process more difficult to game and less engaged in trying to micromanage a range of perceived attractive attributes. For one, I wish all the selective colleges and universities would drop the personal essay in favor of a more rigorous essay that asked for analytic or intellectual responses to an ambitious or challenging prompt.

But if you see any legitimacy to weighting in favor of students from Pitcairn Island and students who are world-class kazoo players, then the only way you can differentially object to the pursuit of a fifty-fifty gender ratio is that only this objective is unimportant in trying to engineer heterogeneity in an admitted class, that a 60-40 ratio is no different than a 50-50 ratio in its effects on the culture and life of a selective college campus. That’s possible, but I do think there’s probably a tipping point where that gender ratio really would begin to affect the pervasive feel or character of a college or university. It’s also possible that those who object to this approach might discover in their objection that they object to “affirmative action” in college admissions across the board when the goal of such action is about trying to engineer diversity or pluralism in an admitted class. I’d at least like to see some of the people with the strongest reactions, like Pollitt, show some awareness of the nature of the minefield they’re careening into.

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29 Responses to Kenyon’s Confession

  1. lauram says:

    My post that was more of a gut reaction, rather than a measured, nuanced argument. But even after thinking about it for a few more days, I’m still really bothered by Kenyon’s admission policy. I’m sure all schools are doing the same thing. I’m sure that they also have quotas for kids from Alaska and the New Jersey kids suffer. Realpolitik. But I still don’t see any benefit for keeping the 50/50 gender quota.

    Men have no history of discrimination, which is a strong reason for having affirmative action programs for disadvantaged groups.

    It does serve an education purpose to have a diversity of students from across the country. I fail to see how letting the gender distribution go naturally to 60/40 would really impact on their education.

    The biggest problem would be at the frat parties. I just don’t see that having a good kegger is a good enough reason to institute these policies.

    I do think that boys’ education problems need serious attention. Let the education people tinker with the lower grades, rather than setting up these system at the university.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    People from Alaska have no history of discrimination per se. For that matter, a third-generation college-attending upper-middle class African-American student from Boston (yes, this is a real category of student at highly selective institutions) arguably is dealing with only one form of historical discrimination, and is arguably better prepared to succeed in college and professional life than a first-generation working-class white male applicant from a mining town in South Dakota.

    If admissions at highly selective institutions were to be constructed entirely around the premise of compensating for discrimination rather than a largely aesthetic set of ambitions to construct a “diverse” class, that would be an overall sea change that would affect far more than gender. The first and primary category of preferential admission would have to be first-generation college attendees, regardless of their race, class or gender, because such students are where the most striking dividend is realized through selective college education, where the transformative address to historical discrimination is greatest. I find that shift appealing, but it has a lot of complicated implications. Among them would be that a third-generation African-American woman coming from an upper-middle-class professional family who attended prep school would be no more preferentially favored than most other applicants, because the logic of such a preference is largely aesthetic and experiential diversity rather than social justice or correction for discrimination.

    I think if you acknowledge any role for aesthetic or “diversity” preferences, even something as seemingly trivial as a preference for applicants from Guam or North Dakota, or a belief that selecting for interesting life experiences enhance the quality of educational experience for all students, the argument against a preference for male students becomes both simpler and in some respect less compelling or intense. Basically it boils down to what you suggest, that a 60/40 ratio of women to men is no big deal, that it’s no different in aesthetic or subjective feel than 50/50. I think that’s possible. I don’t see a huge difference between classes that I teach that are 60% women and 40% men. If there is a difference, I think it’s subtle and actually academically beneficial–the discussions seem to me to be a bit better, richer, more interesting, on balance, though I’d hardly defend that as a rigorous empirical finding. It’s more a kind of complicated intuition, an impressionistic feeling I get. But it seems no big deal to me either way.

    But to push it a bit more, a student body that was 70% female and 30% male would feel different, I think. 80% female and 20% male would feel VERY different. So where’s the tipping point? I don’t know that I can fault someone who decides the tipping point is at 60% rather than 65% or 70%, especially not if that person’s professional life is built around comparing admissions policies and the drivers that produce variable applicant pools at various institutions. Since I can’t say clearly why 70% seems to me to be a substantial thing and 60% not, that kind of obligates me to be tentative about the whole issue.

  3. bnsimon36 says:

    FYI, SUNY Fredonia (public regional university often ranked highly among peers in the Northeast) was close to 50-50 in the ’70s (always slightly more women than men) and has fluctuated between 60-40 and 57-43 ratios (F-M) since the late ’80s. Being an English professor, I tend to see more women than men in my classes, anyway, so I would dispute Tim’s contention that even a 70-30 ratio would make a huge difference in many fields. For professors in fields that are used to having more male than female students, though, I can see a potential difference. Whether it might be an improvement, I don’t know.

    But I agree that the cultural/intellectual diversity arguments around affirmative action are quite complex and need to be weighed quite carefully. If you want to see how my colleague and I are trying to do so, check out Debating Diversity in U.S. Higher Education. Too much going on in the comments there between us to try to reproduce here.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I’m not so much thinking that 70-30 makes a difference in the classroom, but it does make a difference in the nature of the residential college as a whole. And that’s where actually the cultural/intellectual diversity argument is often skewed to begin with. It operates on the premise that the education provided by a residential liberal arts college is only partially situated in the classroom (this I agree with) and therefore that diversity of life experience, background, and so on in the student body positively enhances the total program of education provided within the “community” that is convened within the college. This too seems pretty valid. In that respect, a college that is 70% women is pretty differen than a college that is 50% women. The difference might in some ways be a positive one, actually, but it is unquestionably a difference in feel and character, I think.

  5. lauram says:

    I don’t think that admission policies should be entirely constructed around the premise of compensating for past discrimination. I think admission policies should be primarily contructed around the premise of merit. Certain exceptions should be made for certain groups and even for certain geographic regions. Atheletism, legacies, and parental connection should count for nothing in an ideal world.

    Balance is overrated. I went to SUNY Binghamton as an undergraduate. It was something like 60% Jewish, most students were first generation college attendees, and just about everyone was from Long Island. I was exposed to more interesting people there than when I went to the University of Chicago where everyone was just like me. Sure they might have come from different regions of the country at Chicago, but they were all from educated, middle class families.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Why make an exception for “certain groups” and even “certain geographical regions” if you think merit is the primary criteria? Especially the geographical regions one: there isn’t even likely to be a social justice logic to that preference.

    Otherwise, the merit-centric strategy is a consistent and coherent approach to admissions. I do think it runs into the complicated problem of how the image of a residential college can affect the pool of meritocratic candidates it attracts for admission. E.g., we know that there are number of students with strong academic credentials who would succeed admirably at a selective liberal arts institution who are looking for a student body that has a diverse character, diverse not in the social justice sense, but in the “people from everywhere and with all sorts of aptitudes and interests” sense.

    Moreover, this problem is complicated still further when you consider that this preference on the part of some applicants is potentially not just aesthetic or stylistic but economically rational in the longer run. E.g., one of the dividends you earn at a selective liberal arts institution is the building of social networks that have long-term payoffs in building your career. Arguably this is a more important dividend than what you learn in your classes in terms of life outcomes (I’m going to do a follow-up main entry on this topic in a bit). In that respect, favoring institutions with the aesthetic form of diversity built into their admissions process is a pretty smart long-term move, because it provisions you with a richer range of social-network payoffs. If you’re an undergraduate in a school where all students are in every respect just like yourself, you gain a certain benefit from a kind of social endogamy. In a few professions, that might turn out to be a plus, where there is a strong implicit nepotism of some kind. But in many other professions–journalism, filmmaking or other cultural work, law, politics, etcetera, it is clearly a benefit to be able to call on a social network of other accomplished people with a wider range of geographical and life-experience backgrounds.

  7. lauram says:

    I hate the idea of the university of being a place to gain social networks rather than an education. But I know that I’m being priggish, so I’m slapping myself and getting over it.

    I’m not sure that being exposed to a diversity of people expands your possibility of professional success and provides multiple avenues for success. Really only being connected to students with wealthy, high powered families will help out. The kid from the farming family in Montana and the kid from Harlem aren’t going to help you out.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    I don’t think that’s true, actually, though there’s another layer of complexity here. For the kid coming from a wealthy, high-powered family, contacts with peers who come from other backgrounds often enhances that person’s knowledge, abilities, and social capacities. It doesn’t necessarily work that way in reverse: if you’re coming from a poorer or less advantaged family, the contacts which primarily enhance your social networks after graduation are with wealthy and advantaged people, not with peers of the same background. (Though you may achieve a kind of class-consciousness or identity-work benefit from associating with people of similar background.)

    In any event, I also hate reducing the value of selective education to the acquisition of social networks. But I think the reason that concept has risen as far as it has is on one hand the fact that the content of the liberal arts education itself delivers a less reliable and well-grounded benefit to the students than it once did, and the faculty who offer it believe in that education less than they used to. On the other hand, it’s also that a fairly significant amount of empirical evidence suggests that the most powerfully transformative outcome from higher education is the formation of social networks and of a kind of training in status manners and comportment. I would like to reverse the former, to figure out how to make the content of liberal arts education more potently relevant to many students, a bigger part of the outcome from higher education, but I think we’d be foolish to just stick our fingers in our ears and deny that the latter benefit exists.

  9. withywindle says:

    Some of the discussion I’ve come across so far leaves out how different admissions categories are deliberately overlapping. Athletic ability, for example, used to be a WASP and anti-Jewish quota (as was geographic diversity and “character”); athletic admissions spots now function as a quota for men–and, indeed, especially for Black and Hispanic men, whose relative absence on college campuses is so much commented upon. It would be interesting to see if legacy admissions also skew male. I would say that as a rule of thumb, examine any given category of admissions favoritism, and assume it has some double function.

    Just to add some emotional resonance to this all: when I was an alumnus interviewer for Swat, I was absolutely infuriated when a rather bright and pleasant young lady I interviewed was denied admission, and a rugby lad with the articulateness of a stone was accepted. She wasn’t a genius, and she wasn’t unique–and, gosh, she was white and middle class from the NYC area–but she would have brought a variety of intellectual and social plusses to the college, and all he brought (so far as I could tell) was rugby (I believe he was also white and middle class.). (I’ve interviewed other athletes whom I was happy to recommend to Swarthmore for admission; he really was sub-par.) The injustice of that year’s admissions still sticks in my craw.

  10. Doug says:

    “The kid from the farming family in Montana and the kid from Harlem aren’t going to help you out.”

    Depends on what you want to do, and what the kids are like. First-generation college kids are some energetic folks. (And why the either-or on social networks and education? Don’t almost all of the admissions brochures in this category boast that the most important learning is often outside the classroom? Behold the network.)

    On a more general plane, though, I wonder why the 60-40 question hasn’t been turned around yet. That is, how much of an increase in male students from 50-50 would be necessary before the campus had a different character?

  11. joeo says:

    Male-female admissions tweaking also has the possiblity to have a much higher impact on the less favored class of students than white-black admissions tweaking. Assuming a class made up only of black-white students in which affirmative action switches the percentage of black students from 5% to 10%, that means that 5/95 (or 5.2%) of the otherwise qualified white students are selected against. Assuming a class in which females are switched from 70% to 50% of the class, that means that 20/70 (or 28.5%) of the otherwise qualified female students are selected against. This is a big impact for a policy without any historical justification.

  12. jim says:

    I’m torn. On the one hand, Kenyon is permitted to discriminate this way by the same rules that allow women’s colleges to remain all women: Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Sweet Briar, Agnes Scott, we would miss them if they went. If the price of keeping them is that Kenyon can play games, maybe it’s an acceptable price. (Perhaps the women’s colleges could have a new slogan: “We don’t discriminate against you!”). On the other, and this, I think, motivates a lot of the reaction, the Kenyon policy towards women sounds a lot like the Ivies’ policy towards Jews a few decades ago. We didn’t want to let you in in the first place. Now you’re here, we don’t want too many of you, since if there’s too many of you it will change the feel of the college. This sort of thinking was bad against Jews fifty years ago and it’s equally bad against women now.

    I might add that, according to the Princeton Review, Kenyon is currently 53/47 women/men.

  13. withywindle says:

    Incidentally, *why* do both men and women stop applying in such large numbers when a college becomes more than 60% female? (Assuming this is a valid statistic?) Is it because of fear of lack of connections? Dislike of too feminine an atmosphere? A perception of second-rateness? On the young ladies’ part, do dating and marriage prospects factor in? And is there a similar tipping point in professions when they become more than 60% female?

  14. barry says:

    withywindle, I’d like to see that validity proven, as well. Is there anything to prove that?

    And if it is true, then what are Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Sweet Briar, Agnes Scott – community colleges?

  15. lauram says:

    Tim, I have to say this conversation kinda bums me out, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Let me figure it out.

    I’m not sure that a 50/50 split will improve the classroom education experience on the basis of diversity. Remember that you’ve already cut out some of the smartest students and brought in less smart men in order to meet the quota.

    If diversity of people is important, then not only should we have equal number of men and women and people from different geographic areas, but we should have a diversity of people with different IQ scores, of different ages, and the income of the university student should fairly reflect America’s income distribution.

    I’m skeptical about the education that students get out of the classroom with their peers. I learned a lot more about life when I got out of college and got a job.

    But those arguments don’t even matter, because that’s not why schools are working so hard to keep the 50/50 split.

    This whole thing just reveals to me how vacant and superficial this whole academic thing has become. It’s about selling a product, a campus, a university experience, which increasingly lacks anything of real intellectual challenge. The top 50 schools are pretty much interchangeable, but they have compete with each other for the hottest students in order to come out on top and then justify their high tuitions. So, they make sure that offer the hottest student body and the most well groomed school grounds. Too bad that no one really cares whether or not the professors are actually teaching their kids anything.

    Maybe I spent too long at public schools, but I’m turned off by all this. CUNY didn’t have the green campuses or the social networks or the buff frat boys. I’m quite certain that women overwhelm men on the campus and no one cares. The students are there to get an education and get a job and help out their families. That’s what a college should be about.

  16. My high school was an academic magnet: you had to be in roughly the upper third of middle schoolers to be admitted, and maintain a 2.5 GPA and not be involved in fights (very rare) to stay. Each freshman class was adjusted for race (50% of those who enrolled that fall were African-American), but not for any other factors. The school was also between 60 and 65% female, with a gender balance that was increasingly skewed in the upper classes. Somehow in the midst of this I found a good boyfriend, but it was a harsh numbers game come prom time.

    Thus, one of my criteria when I applied to college was that the school be no more than 51% female. Dead serious. This wasn’t about the prospects for connections—I came from a background that didn’t really even stop to think about such concerns: had none, knew none, ignored all is only slight exaggeration. This was honestly a decision based entirely on the dating prospects.

    I graduated from the University of Chicago without an Mrs. With my shifting locations, a good thing; but I’m sufficiently Louisianan that, at 24, half my girlfriends from high school are either married or engaged; that figure includes a Kenyon lady engaged to a U Florida gent.

    I agree with much of what Laura says about how much the universities are trying to sell a product—I argue, though, that Chicago students are decidedly not hot and still rather intellectual—but I’m willing to admit it as an aberration among the 50–in a process that will prove both inefficient as less qualified students drop out, or damaging to the universities as they are coddled into staying. It will be interesting to see if CUNY and other up-and-comers can improve quickly enough to pass such aesthetic schools before the image-driven ones reverse course.

    And perhaps, going to Chicago for the men (what an odd, odd idea) did actually work, for it led me to meet at wonderful fellow at an alumni event. With that and the education I received at Chicago, I remain utterly unrepentant for my own college choice.

  17. Timothy Burke says:

    In some ways, the issue bums me out too, Laura. I personally don’t think that a 60-40 gender split is that big a deal–though Amanda does a really good job here of spelling out at least one personal calculation of how it matters to some applicants. But I would say that I don’t see how to construct a consistent or sound objection to the idea that an admissions office should not pursue gender balance that wouldn’t include all the micromanagement of other categories of preference as well. I recoil somewhat to the hubris involved in the whole enterprise of trying to engineer precisely the right student body, but at the same time, especially in the smaller liberal arts colleges, that’s actually the scale at which a great many things operate, where every individual student is known in some respects to faculty and administrators and receives (ideally) some degree of personal attention.

  18. lstokes says:

    As a current Swarthmore freshman who recently made the “big college decision,” I will be the first to admit that I would not have considered any school with a 60/40 gender ratio. Hell, I probably wouldn’t have considered anywhere with a 55/45 gender ratio.

    I went to a private all-girls school from eighth grade on, and by the end of that experience I was so burnt out on estrogen that I and many of my classmates were determined to avoid girls at all costs in college. Which meant no women’s colleges and no colleges with a gender ratio worse than 55/45. (And, once we got to college, having at least 60 percent of our friends be male. But that’s another story.)

    My experience obviously comes out of having suffered under 100/0 for five years and wanting to see how the other half lives, but I can promise that most of my friends at 50/50 public schools thought the same way. (Except for the handful who went to women’s colleges, all of whom had their own reasons.)

    I understand why this could be seen as a “superficial” preference on my part, but coming at it from eighteen, it’s definitely a preference I had. Not necessarily because I’m shooting for my Mrs, not because I was worried about the dating scene, just because 50/50 seemed to me “normal” and “aesthetically pleasing.”

    If Swarthmore had been 60/40, it probably would have lost me. Sometimes I worry that it didn’t really want me in the first place, me being the white upper-middle class student body president from New Jersey that I am, but hell. If Swarthmore rejects strong female applicants in order to appeal to stronger female applicants, that’s fine with me.

    Also, if engineering the right student body is a ridiculous proposition and balance is overrated, then we have to admit that the girls who get rejected from Kenyon could be happy in a number of places, and so in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter whether Kenyon rejected them or not. They could be happy at SUNY, they could be happy at Swarthmore, they might even be happy at Scripps (no love? it was the only women’s college I considered), Smith, and Bryn Mawr.

  19. bnsimon36 says:

    Wondering how Lani Guinier’s critical analysis of meritocracy complicates discussions here. At the very least, I think it should make us rethink how we recognize, identify, measure, appraise, assess (pick a verb you like) “merit.” I like Tim’s idea of requiring a substantive essay (perhaps as well as, instead of instead of, the personal essay), but would love to be on the faculty committee that came up with the question each year (that would be a faculty responsibility, right?). Personally, I think “student learning portfolios” would be a better way to go, but I don’t see how you could then just leave the job to admissions people, since it would require a lot of reading.

    Also would agree with Doug that that we should stop assuming classrooms are the only site for “intellectual” life on a campus, or that it’s possible to cleanly separate “social” networking and “academic” learning.

    That said, I think Malcolm Gladwell’s “Getting In” is quite relevant in the way Gladwell (apparently following Naomi Klein) links the aesthetic and the economic when ending his review essay on Karabel’s The Chosen:

    I once had a conversation with someone who worked for an advertising agency that represented one of the big luxury automobile brands. He said that he was worried that his client’s new lower-priced line was being bought disproportionately by black women. He insisted that he did not mean this in a racist way. It was just a fact, he said. Black women would destroy the brand’s cachet. It was his job to protect his client from the attentions of the socially undesirable.

    This is, in no small part, what Ivy League admissions directors do. They are in the luxury-brand-management business, and “The Chosen,” in the end, is a testament to just how well the brand managers in Cambridge, New Haven, and Princeton have done their job in the past seventy-five years. In the nineteen twenties, when Harvard tried to figure out how many Jews they had on campus, the admissions office scoured student records and assigned each suspected Jew the designation j1 (for someone who was “conclusively Jewish”), j2 (where the “preponderance of evidence” pointed to Jewishness), or j3 (where Jewishness was a “possibility”). In the branding world, this is called customer segmentation. In the Second World War, as Yale faced plummeting enrollment and revenues, it continued to turn down qualified Jewish applicants. As Karabel writes, “In the language of sociology, Yale judged its symbolic capital to be even more precious than its economic capital.” No good brand manager would sacrifice reputation for short-term gain. The admissions directors at Harvard have always, similarly, been diligent about rewarding the children of graduates, or, as they are quaintly called, “legacies.” In the 1985-92 period, for instance, Harvard admitted children of alumni at a rate more than twice that of non-athlete, non-legacy applicants, despite the fact that, on virtually every one of the school’s magical ratings scales, legacies significantly lagged behind their peers. Karabel calls the practice “unmeritocratic at best and profoundly corrupt at worst,” but rewarding customer loyalty is what luxury brands do. Harvard wants good graduates, and part of their definition of a good graduate is someone who is a generous and loyal alumnus. And if you want generous and loyal alumni you have to reward them. Aren’t the tremendous resources provided to Harvard by its alumni part of the reason so many people want to go to Harvard in the first place? The endless battle over admissions in the United States proceeds on the assumption that some great moral principle is at stake in the matter of whom schools like Harvard choose to let in—that those who are denied admission by the whims of the admissions office have somehow been harmed. If you are sick and a hospital shuts its doors to you, you are harmed. But a selective school is not a hospital, and those it turns away are not sick. Élite schools, like any luxury brand, are an aesthetic experience—an exquisitely constructed fantasy of what it means to belong to an élite —and they have always been mindful of what must be done to maintain that experience.

    If this is true of highly selective liberal arts colleges, too, then I think it’s worth seeing the “preference micromanagement” Tim warns against not just in terms of its impacts on campus life or intellectual/social community, but also literally as an investment strategy (isn’t diversification the best hedge against risk and uncertainty?). One could imagine a school that put its endowment managers in charge of enrollment management–or maybe this is already happening? Doesn’t every private school depend in large part on alumni giving to continue operating? I think it would be going too far to say it’s all about the money–these are non-profits we’re talking about, right? …right?–but isn’t every single student a college admits a literal investment in the institution’s future? It still costs a lot more to educate them than they pay in tuition and fees, so the lifetime giving of an entering class must in the end be greater than what it cost the school to educate them (minus tuition and fees totals, of course). In this context, is it surprising that schools aren’t just looking for the “best students” but for the “most successful graduates” (to use Gladwell’s distinction)?

    The question for me, if this is a legitimate admissions criterion, is how to predict who will be a successful graduate (or at least increase the odds a classyou admit will lead successful lives)? How to define success in a flexible enough way that schools who claim to be looking for the “best graduates” aren’t just admitting kids who stand to inherit a lot of $$$ down the road or work in the most lucrative professions? If this proves impossible, perhaps highly selective and highly endowed institutions should agree or be forced to pay a “luxury tax” to, or engage in a “revenue sharing” arrangement with, selected state schools, so that some small proportion of private endowments goes to public endowments each year, to help the publics keep tuition and fees relatively low even as state and federal support declines.

  20. brian ledford says:

    Did either the original op-ed or the inside higher ed article really establish that the women applicants were more academically impressive than the men? The example from the op-ed was:

    “She was the leader/president/editor/captain/lead actress in every activity in her school. She had taken six advanced placement courses and had been selected for a prestigious state leadership program. In her free time, this whirlwind of achievement had accumulated more than 300 hours of community service in four different organizations.”

    but unfortunately had average test scores and grades. And the male and female SAT scores were essentially identical (1356M vs 1370F). So is it really true that less smart men are being brought in? It sounds more like less social/involved/extraverted men
    are being brought in. And that could be undesirable if you want your student body to be outgoing, socially responsible, extraverted type A sorts of people. It would have been nice to have some transcript facts in hand for the comparison: GPA’s, number of AP tests passed, etc.

  21. lauram says:

    so laughing at the idea of the hot U of C guys. You should have seen my boyfriend when I was there. Absolutely the thinnest man alive.

    Recognizing that I’m being a complete fuddy-duddy and hypocrite, I have wonder whether or not universities should be dating services. I mean we’re really heaping a lot of missions on to the college system — it’s supposed to provide an education, social networks, and dates.

    If schools kept the uneven split, they could still help their women find dates. What did they do in the old days when schools were mostly men? Didn’t they do dances with the women’s colleges or something? All the smart Ivy league girls could have sock hops with the local community colleges.

    I know that I’m saying this as a 40 year old bore. And I met most of my boyfriends, including my husband, on a university campus. So, don’t listen to me.

  22. withywindle says:

    This isn’t the first time I’ve heard the bit about there being lower standards for men; indeed, I think I did hear it, privately, from Swarthmore’s director of admissions; wherever I heard it, I’ve known this for at least a few years. I don’t actually doubt it–I’d just like to see some hard statistics, publicly released, rather than the delphic whispering of the admissions directors.

  23. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree it would be interesting to try and see this empirically rather than impressionistically documented–after all, we know full well to be deeply suspicious, for good reason, of other such impressions that were common in the past.

    Laura, again, the problem is not so much whether universities should be dating services as the expectations of the probable customer base of a given university or college. There are a pretty consistent set of things that 18-year olds are thinking about as they look at places they want to apply, and at least some of them aren’t really anything that those insitutions are trying to engineer or make an explicit part of their objectives. But at the same time, if you are an admissions director, you have to pay attention to what your applicant pool commonly thinks is true about your institution. There isn’t any school in the country that consciously, programmatically sets out to be a “party school”, probably, but there are plenty that understand that having an image as such plays a major role in attracting certain students and repelling others. I think a college where it became a common image that it was hard for women to find male partners because they were scarce might find that affecting its applicant pool in undesirable ways. So yeah, I don’t think colleges or universities should set out to be dating services, but at the same time, in the real world, it would be potentially self-destructive to be aggressively disinterested in common perceptions among applicants about whether or not it was possible to find love and sexual connection with other students.

  24. SamChevre says:

    One thing to keep in mind is that “qualified” is a very manipulable quality. I would guess that the differences in “qualification” between men and women could be changed quite easily by changing the weight put on SAT scores vs GPA; every study I know of shows that boys do relatively better on high-stakes tests, and girls do relatively better on classwork, turing in neat homework regularly, etc.

    The other thing I notice is the emphasis put on “leadership” and “community service”. I really really hate those requirements. (My experience–I worked my way through college, got excellent grades, and had a very hard time getting a job because I had no “leadership experience.” I’d run a business for years before college, I’d worked 20 hours a week during college–but employers wanted someone with “leadership experience”, like organizing frat parties.) Back to topic–in my community, I notice that often in the same families, girls are involved in some kind of volunteer activity, but boys have part-time jobs–if you weight “community service” higher than working, your criteria are skewed both against the working-class and, I suspect, against boys.

  25. Timothy Burke says:

    Good points, Sam. Yes, when some folks say, “Take only the most qualified applicants”, I’m not always sure what measurements they have in mind that would allow that goal to be rigorously pursued. It isn’t just that there’s a gender issue in that case: GPA, for example, is an incredibly variable indicator of “qualification” for a selective college. A 4.0 GPA at some high schools may be the equivalent in terms of predicting likely success at a place like Swarthmore to a 3.0 GPA at others. SAT scores raise a whole different suite of issues, but I know I wouldn’t benefit as a teacher from classes stacked with nothing but 1600-score students.

    Many classrooms in fact function best off of differentials between student aptitudes, interests, commitments and prior life experiences. Modest forms of diversity in those areas are generative or productive of “quality” educational experiences.

    The leadership/community service stuff is the stuff which is most easily gamed by applicants these days, and it partially feeds the kind of ridiculous, unreal overscheduling of the lives of overachieving high schoolers. Personally, if I was allowed to send in a custom order to the admissions office here, I’d put in a bid for a substantial quota of high schoolers who did strong work in the classroom and didn’t really give a rat’s ass about community service, leadership, or much else besides hanging out and having fun when they weren’t doing their schoolwork. It’s nice to have a few people who were running their own soup kitchens at the age of 15, but what you end up seeing instead is a lot of ambitious overachievers stuffing their youthful resumes full of that kind of stuff.

  26. Timothy Burke says:

    Also good points from Lauren above. If you consider that the applicants rejected by Kenyon are likely to find a “good fit” somewhere else, it’s hard to work out what exactly the harm to them is. I basically tell any prospective Swarthmore applicant who cares to hear it that once you’ve decided you want to be at a selective small liberal arts college, you’ve done all the deciding that really matters. You’ve rationally chosen a size preference, a kind of curricular structure, and you’ve aimed for schools with roughly equivalent resources. Beyond that whether you’re at Oberlin, Swarthmore, Kenyon, Smith, Amherst, Williams, Reed and so on will make a difference to your life, but the kind of difference that no one could reasonably expect to assess accurately in advance. You can only guess what it is that you will want, and guess at whether a particular college’s alleged institutional culture will supply your desires in some especially appropriate fashion. Most of what will make a big difference in your life during college is quintessentially unpredictable. You can’t know which professors will matter, which courses will inspire, which friends will be meaningful, which fields of study you will find you really, really want access to and so on. So the injustice of not being admitted at Kenyon is not much of an injustice at all as long you get admitted at some institution of comparable caliber and type.

  27. Laura says:

    Very interesting debate. Since I’m working at a women’s college (Bryn Mawr), I have a slightly different perspective. I graduated from a selective liberal arts college that was probably 50/50 male-female, but not very diverse in other ways. This whole conversation gets me to thinking about James Suroweicki’s Wisdom of Crowds. I haven’t read the book, but just heard him speak and he talks about the need for diversity in order to have wise crowds. He said he mainly meant diversity of ideas, but that that often comes from people with different ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. I wonder, though, if the people who apply to and attend these schools don’t have very similar ideas and goals. Surely they know that such a school is a leg up?

    At Bryn Mawr, there are many things that I think are wonderful about having only women around. When I taught last semester, it was great to be able to approach things in ways that I never would have if there was a man in the room. It was freeing in a way. There was no one in the room I had to convince that there was gender discrimination in the workplace. They knew. And we could talk about girl stuff.

    But, I’ve noticed, since most of my colleagues are men, that they sometimes forget how to deal with men. Not that they don’t have male professors and some men in their classes and boyfriends, but just dealing with men in a normal everday setting is sometimes weird for them. We’ve all noticed it, not just me. And some are worse than others. Some really do sequester themselves.

    I sometimes think about whether I would have enjoyed a school like Bryn Mawr at 18. I don’t think so. Yes, it would have been nice to be free in the way I mentioned above. And given that I was in the South where gender relations are skewed, it might have benefitted me greatly. But I had to learn to navigate all that on my own. I had to learn how to cope with assertive men in the classroom and the newspaper room.

    It would be an interesting what if, if colleges diversified on everything but gender. What would they look like then? Would white men become a minority at such schools? Somehow I don’t think so, but they might have to work a little harder to get in. Is that fair? I don’t know.

  28. too_many_logins says:

    Tim, I have two comments – first, it took me five minutes to login, and I had to re-register to do it. I couldn’t remember my login ID, and whomever programmed wordpress requires both the login ID and my e-mail address to retrieve the password. When I decided just to re-register, every variation on my name was taken (including ones which didn’t work to have my password resent). Really, really frustrating. The system should just require an e-mail address.

    Second, about your comment: “Timothy Burke Says:

    March 29th, 2006 at 1:19 pm
    Good points, Sam. Yes, when some folks say, “Take only the most qualified applicants”, I’m not always sure what measurements they have in mind that would allow that goal to be rigorously pursued. It isn’t just that there’s a gender issue in that case: GPA, for example, is an incredibly variable indicator of “qualification” for a selective college. A 4.0 GPA at some high schools may be the equivalent in terms of predicting likely success at a place like Swarthmore to a 3.0 GPA at others. ”

    At the University of Michigan, where I went, a newspaper article describing the admissions procedure stated that all GPA’s were recomputed. First, all non-academic courses were stripped, and the raw GPA recomputed. Then, a correction factor for the school was applied. The admissions department was very aware that a 3.0 might mean below average at some schools, and stellar at others.

  29. Timothy Burke says:

    Sorry about the re-registration difficulties. I’ll look into whether there’s a way to streamline that a bit. (I have to say that I’m happy about the decreased trollage that the registration creates, though.)

    I think most selective institutions have similar techniques for assessing GPA, so you’re right, it can be done. For a campus with a significant national intake, it takes building up a pretty large knowledge base, however.

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