Affirmative Action for Men in College Admissions

My wife Alison and University of San Diego law professor Gail Heriot have just published an article in Engage on the apparently growing practice of sex discrimination on behalf of men in college admissions. Heriot serves as a Commissioner at the US Commission on Civil Rights, where Alison is her special assistant/counsel. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

While some news reports indicate that discrimination against women on the basis of sex in college admissions is increasingly common, there has been relatively little public discussion about it—especially compared to the much more heated public debate concerning race-based affirmative action. Not surprisingly, therefore, there have been few attempts to study the extent of the problem systematically….

Multiple news reports indicate that some colleges and universities, both public and private, have what they regard as “too many” women applicants and are therefore discriminating in favor of men—largely because more women than men apply to college and their academic credentials are in some ways better. Several colleges have more or less openly admitted to discriminating against women – including the University of Richmond (a private institution) and the College of William and Mary (a public institution). Others—including Southwestern University (Texas), Knox College (Illinois), Brandeis University (Massachusetts), Boston University (also Massachusetts), and Pomona College (California)—shy away from admitting directly that they are discriminating, but admit that maintaining an optimal gender balance by non-discriminatory means is difficult….

Sex discrimination in admissions at public universities is illegal under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. But under federal law, it is perfectly legal for private institutions to engage in sex discrimination in admissions—though once both sexes are admitted, neither may be discriminated against….

Perhaps the most attention-getting piece on this topic was a 2006 New York Times op-ed by Jennifer Delahunty Britz, an admissions officer at Kenyon College, in which she admitted that her office often gave preferential treatment to men. Some admissions insiders wrote in response to Delahunty Britz’s piece that these preferences were quite common—what was shocking was only Delahunty Britz’s candor in airing this information publicly. Inside Higher Ed noted that “[w]hile few admissions officers wanted to talk publicly about the column, the private reaction was a mix of ‘of course male applicants get some help’ along with ‘did she have to share that information with the world?’” Several years later, after the wave of chatter over Delahunty Britz’s piece had died down, Columbia University law professor Ted Shaw referred to such discrimination as an “open secret.”
[footnotes omitted].

The article also discusses the interconnections between admissions preferences for men and Title IX rules for college sports teams (the latter may have the unintended effect of incentivizing the former by making it harder for colleges to entice male students through increasing the number of men’s sports teams). Alison previously wrote about Title IX and sports here.

This issue is actually one of the rare points of political disagreement in the Somin household. I am less hostile than Alison to gender-balancing admissions policies that seek to keep the sex ratio (very roughly) even for the purpose of improving the social environment on campus. The problem of gender imbalance may be more serious at some institutions than others, and I don’t think it can justify very large gender preferences anywhere. As Gail and Alison point out, it’s a bad idea for colleges to admit “mismatched” male students whose academic skills are vastly inferior to those of the other students at the same institution. But, in some situations, I think there is a case for modest admissions preferences for the less numerous gender on campus. Some women students themselves may be dissatisfied with life on a campus that is, say, 70% female, and the same goes for male students at an overwhelmingly male institution. Obviously, other students probably couldn’t care less about the sex ratio at their university. But I don’t advocate that all universities with a gender imbalance should resort to admissions preferences to deal with it. I merely want the option to be legally available, at least at private institutions. Be that as it may, I do agree with Alison that such policies at public institutions are legally dubious under Title IX.