Federal Government Investigates Gender Discrimination at Liberal Arts Colleges

The United States Commission on Civil Rights launched an investigation into whether liberal arts colleges are discriminating against women during the admissions process.At the end of October, the commission finalized a list of schools to investigate after deciding in August to pursue the proposal by Gail Heriot, a commissioner and University of San Diego professor.The study proposal urges the commission to subpoena, if necessary, data about applicants’ genders, SAT scores, offers of financial aid, athletic scholarships, and admission status from liberal arts colleges, mostly in the Washington D.C. area.The investigation was prompted by what Heriot calls an “open secret” that liberal arts colleges are showing preference to male applicants in order to minimize the gender disparity.Women receive about 58 percent of all bachelor’s degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and many liberal arts schools reflect that number in their student body populations.In response to the growing number of female applicants, many colleges, including some of the 5Cs, are making a conscious admissions decision to split sex ratios evenly. Because liberal arts colleges are often small, gender disparities are more noticeable, causing some schools to fear that prospective students may be turned off by campuses that are “too female,” as Heriot’s proposal says.Liberal arts colleges also typically do not have specialized programs, such as Harvey Mudd’s engineering program, that attract more men and balance the overall ratio.The proposal suggests that the problem may lie in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. According to Title IX, liberal arts schools are allowed to consider gender in admissions decisions. Title IX also mandates that schools provide equal opportunities to male and female athletes.The problem, according to the proposal, is that some schools are looking to attract men by increasing the number of male athletic teams. Instead of spending money on additional female athletic teams, as they must do in accordance with Title IX, the schools are instead choosing to admit fewer women.“A law that was designed to prevent sex discrimination in higher education [Title IX] may be causing sex discrimination on account of the Department of Education’s emphasis on athletics in enforcement,” Heriot writes in the proposal.The study proposes a few gender-neutral methods of creating a balanced gender ratio. One possibility, it states, is creating departments or extracurricular activities that more often appeal to men, such as engineering.Among the 5Cs, the admissions policies in relation to gender vary. Aside from Harvey Mudd and Scripps, the schools all receive more female applicants than male, but accept a smaller percentage of women. Pomona, whose student body is split almost exactly between men and women, admits almost 21 percent of male applicants and only 13 percent of female applicants.“We’re going to admit students who, reading through it, we think they’re admissible, but when it gets down to making final determinations, we’ll consider gender balance,” said Pomona Senior Associate Dean of Admissions Art Rodriguez. “[Having gender balance] is something that the Board of Trustees has told us is important to us as a college. So I wouldn’t say that there is an affirmative action towards men. I think we’re just looking to make sure we have balance in the class, and there are certainly enough applicants, both male and female, who could fill the class.”According to Pomona Sociology and Chicano/a and Latino/a Studies Professor Gilda Ochoa, discussions of gender in admissions practices are inseparable from discussions of race and class.Possible explanations for the patterns, she said, could be that K-12 schools and liberal arts colleges privilege a certain type of knowledge and provide a confined, structured classroom environment in which students are expected to sit and absorb information. The problem also begins before students reach college as some students are tracked for gifted programs and others for academic paths that lend themselves to military recruitment or to “the prison industrial complex.”“Regarding Pomona College, I have long hoped that the College would more broadly define conceptions of ‘qualified students,’” Ochoa said. “Too often, an emphasis on college rankings and SAT scores, along with class-based knowledge of a liberal arts education, reduce who is admitted and who even applies to schools such as Pomona College.”Some people are asking why the study is not investigating admissions policies at science and math liberal arts colleges, which often have significantly higher numbers of men and accept larger percentages of women.Harvey Mudd accepts 55 percent of its female applicants and only 30 percent of male applicants.“It’s pretty obvious it’s a priority that we want more gender diversity here,” said Falone Serna, Assistant Director of Admissions at Harvey Mudd. “So much of the college experience is outside of [the classroom]. Women have a different perspective than males, and I think that affects the way they attack certain problems, the way they handle adversity, [and] the way they approach different issues.”Nonetheless, the College maintains it holds all applicants to the same standards.“Everyone here puts a lot of effort into making these decisions,” Serna said. “We agonize over the decisions we make. We don’t want to deny students. The reality is, if you were that good and that desirable, you’d get in regardless of what the under-represented population is.…This is not an objective process. If it was, we’d just ask for transcripts and test scores, but it goes beyond that. I think numbers are what they are, but the reality is, just like we don’t want a bunch of males on campus, other colleges don’t want a bunch of women on campus and they’ll do what’s best for their population.”The most active recruitment of women through programs and initiatives (such as flying admitted women in to visit the college) began when Harvey Mudd President Maria Klawe was appointed in 2006. After a career as a female computer scientist, Klawe accepted the position as the school’s first female president and began a push to increase the number of women at Harvey Mudd and in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math at large.“Women are under-represented in fields of math and science despite being a majority in other areas of academia, and we realize that right now, the majority of students who go on to professions in fields of math and science are white males, which is the most declining population in this country,” Serna said. “We need to take advantage of the population that’s increasing if we want to compete on a global level in math and science.”The other Claremont Colleges do not have the problem of too few female applicants. Though CMC, originally Claremont Men’s College, admits nearly equal amounts of men and women (about 22 percent of male and 21 percent of female applicants), the school has a higher yield of men. Almost 47 percent of admitted men and only 34 percent of admitted women choose to enroll.“We look at the applicants in the exact same light and don’t change recruiting, reading, and admissions practices in any way between the sexes,” said CMC Admission Counselor Evan Rutter.Rutter said the school still values gender diversity.“If any school goes too far either way, they start to lose a certain identity of what the college is,” Rutter said. “If it went too far to one side, CMC would lose that balanced perspective, the perspective of true diversity of a classroom of half women, half men debating all the issues. I think that’s important, to define CMC as diverse and balanced in many ways, including gender.”Pitzer, which was an all-women’s college for six years, admits 22 percent of male and a little more than 19 percent of female applicants, yet its student body is composed of 62 percent women.“We don’t have much regard in one way or the other,” said Justin Voss, Pitzer Associate Director of Admission, about gender policies in admissions. “We read and review the entire process without a whole lot of looking at that. We would love to have a balanced class, but that doesn’t happen with Pitzer.”Voss said campus diversity is a major part of the learning process but that prospective students are more drawn to the personality Pitzer embodies than the gender ratio.“Regardless of the gender of the student we’re admitting, we’re still looking for a Pitzer student, and it’s not a male Pitzer student or a female Pitzer student,” Voss said. “We want somebody who embodies the core values at Pitzer, somebody who’s going to be involved, both academically and socially.”Scripps has never seriously considered becoming co-ed, although it was approached about forming a partnership with CMC when the latter began admitting women.

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