U.S. Civil Rights Commission Investigates College Admission Bias

The government is examining whether colleges discriminate against female applicants.

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The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is investigating whether college admission offices are discriminating against female applicants to achieve gender balance in their student bodies.

College enrollment rates for women have increased over the past 20 years. In 2005, 57 percent of the 17.5 million undergraduate students enrolled in college were women, and the National Center for Education Statistics projects that by 2016, 60 percent of all college students will be female. The increase in female applicants has meant that at some selective colleges, they are rejected in higher percentages than male applicants are. "We hope to start a conversation on how to deal with it," says Gail Heriot, one of the group's commissioners and a law professor at the University of San Diego.

The commission would not give the names of the schools it is investigating but said that it is focusing on a sample group of 10 to 20 within a 100-mile radius of Washington.

The use of gender as part of admission decisions is prohibited at public schools and in private graduate and professional programs. Under the 1972 amendments to the federal Title IX law, private liberal arts colleges do have a legal right to consider gender in admissions. The commission intends, according to its proposal, to document how widespread gender discrimination might be. The group does not have the authority to change the legal rights of private schools. The commission also is looking at whether schools provide equal athletic opportunities.

Using data on undergraduate admissions rates collected from more than 1,400 four-year colleges and universities that participate in the company's rankings, U.S. News has found that over the past 10 years, many selective schools have been maintaining their gender balance by admitting male and female applicants at sometimes drastically different rates.

Over the past decade at the University of Richmond in Virginia, for example, women have been admitted at a rate that is on average 11 percentage points lower than that for males. Last year, however, the private university—which is roughly 53 percent female and 47 percent male—admitted 40 percent of women and 38 percent of men who applied.

Nancy Tessier, vice president of enrollment management at Richmond, says the college does not have a gender balance target. But she says that gender, and many other characteristics, factor into the process of making a diverse study body.

Some colleges might have a wide male-female split because of the programs they offer. At Illinois Wesleyan University, a private liberal arts university in Bloomington, Ill., 58 percent of students are women and 42 percent are men. Illinois Wesleyan has professional schools in art, music, and theater, a school of nursing, and a certification program in elementary education. "The programs probably attract a higher percentage of female interest than male interest," says Tony Bankston, the university's dean of admissions. He adds that programs like nursing and vocal performance have comparatively low enrollment limits, which could contribute to a higher rejection rate for applicants in those areas. Last year's admit rates for men and women at the school were fairly even at about 55 percent.

Overall, the nationwide numbers do not suggest widespread discrimination. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that between 2003 and 2008, women were admitted to college at a rate that is, on average, 2 percentage points higher than that for men. The fact that most U.S. colleges are "open admission"—meaning that they admit nearly every qualified applicant—might play a role in this statistic.

Some experts argue that the commission's probe could be misguided. Lisa Maatz, director of public policy at the Washington-based American Association of University Women, says that expanding socioeconomic diversity on campus is more important. "We need to help impoverished boys and girls to improve educational outcomes and have equal opportunity," Maatz says.