Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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The 'boy problem'

Q: Civil rights investigators are examining whether some colleges are admitting higher percentages of male applicants so their campuses won't be dominated by women. Are women being penalized for being more successful students? Should gender be taken into account in the admissions process?

"Co-education Destructive" blares the headline of a 1910 article in the New York Times. Quoting Professor Charles M. Green of Harvard Medical School, the article explains a view, popular in that day, that the "mixing of the sexes" in schools and colleges strained the nervous system, with particularly deleterious consequences for women.

"The nervous breakdown of many women is due to striving to compete with men for educational honors, " said Green. "The male sex view with their studies less seriously than women and do not suffer as much."

Well. Turns out the headline was prophetic, and Green was right, at least in part. Coeducation was destructive of the old sexist bastions of male collegiate privilege. As women surged into higher education in the late 1960's and 1970's, they proved their intellectual prowess from the start. It's no secret that coeducation raised the standards for admission in many formerly male institutions. The men should have taken their studies more seriously.

For more than 300 years, from the day that Harvard admitted the first (male) student in 1636, to the early 1970s, men were the dominant force in higher education largely because of a systematic pattern of discrimination against women. Women were barred from admission -- particularly in colleges on the East Coast -- because of biases and false theories about their mental and physical health, family roles, and religious rules.

A few progressive thinkers responded to this discrimination by starting the great women's colleges of the 19th Century: Mount Holyoke, Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr. Radcliffe became the women's college at Harvard in 1894, but women were not fully integrated into Harvard until 1972.

In 1897, when the Sisters of Notre Dame set about establishing Trinity College in Washington, a great controversy arose because some conservatives in the Church called the higher education of women part of the heresy of "Americanism." Cardinal James Gibbons, then the Catholic Church leader in this region, intervened. He wrote to the sisters that the refusal of then-new Catholic University to admit women was "an embarrassment" and he gave them approval to found Trinity as one of the nation's first Catholic colleges for women.

Graduates of women's colleges in the 20th century proved that women could excel in higher education and in the professions, and their success was a major factor in breaking down the barriers for the admission of women at the men's colleges and universities.

Why are women now seen as "a problem" for higher education when nobody saw any problem in 300+ years of male dominance? Various reasons are given for the alarm. Some admissions directors say that enrollments will decline if too many women are present (Huh? Isn't the problem surging enrollment of women?). Some researchers say that the entire family structure will implode because less-educated men will not want to marry more well-educated women. (Note from a thriving women's college: Most of our graduates are happily married!)

One of the more hidden reasons for the alarm is Title IX compliance. Title IX is the 1972 law that requires educational institutions to ensure gender equity, including athletics. When women are the majority on a college campus, the ability of the college to meet Title IX funding balance requirements in sports becomes increasingly difficult, especially if that university has a football team, which is a massively expensive sport. Some of the colleges that are doing "quota" admissions for women might be trying to address their Title IX issues, albeit improperly.

Discriminating against women in college admissions is plain wrong, probably illegal, and certainly not the right solution to the real problem. There is a serious "boy problem" in lower education that is constricting the pipeline of appropriately prepared men ready for college. The high school dropout rate for men is increasingly alarming, particularly among black and Hispanic males.

The solution is not to create more barriers for women to enter college. The solution is to address the reasons why the population of academically prepared males is shrinking at the K-12 level. Moreover, to meet the Obama administration's goal of dramatically increasing the total number of citizens participating in some level of collegiate education, we must increase the total number of seats in higher education across all institutions. There should not be a gender race for seats, any more than there should be a racial or ethnic competition; there should be enough seats for all -- and many more qualified students.

To break down historic barriers to their college admission, women had to prove their academic abilities and even their sanity. In the past, men never had to prove so much, and today they surely should not have to demonstrate much less.

By Patricia McGuire  |  December 17, 2009; 4:25 PM ET  | Category:  education Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Patrica, you are definitely on to something that this is all about Title IX and sports, not academics.

Posted by: lnbee | December 19, 2009 6:34 PM
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The men should have taken their studies more seriously.
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Would you say the same in the case of "classic" affirmative action? For instance, would you say that African-American children should have taken their studies more seriously, so they shouldn't be given any preference in admissions? Or would you say that this situation is different because men are only being discriminated against today, but have not been historically?

Posted by: Balexandria | December 19, 2009 4:06 PM
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