The New Gender Gap

Are males an endangered species on American college campuses?

When Elizabeth Cary Agassiz helped found the “Harvard Annex”—the predecessor to Radcliffe—in 1879, it is unlikely that she could have imagined a day when—down the street—women would outnumber men in caps and gowns in the Yard.

Two years from now, that day is likely to arrive. Females outnumbered males among freshmen enrolling in the Class of 2008, the Admissions Office reported at the time.

And Agassiz, who received no formal education but became a prominent naturalist and educator nonetheless, may never have thought that today, women would outnumber men by a wide margin on college campuses nationwide. But in 2003, there were 1.35 females for every male graduate from a four-year college and 1.3 females for every male undergraduate in the U.S., according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

In fact, the gender balance on college campuses in Agassiz’s time was more even than it would be in the mid-20th century.

Even before Agassiz’s death in 1907 and shortly thereafter, the number of women undergraduates was nearly on par with the number of male college students. Women who were born in 1891, for instance, were slightly more likely to attend some college than men born that same year—though these women were significantly less likely to gain a bachelor’s degree.

By the mid-20th century, parity was a thing of the past, and male college graduates outnumbered females by a two-to-one margin.

But by 1980, parity was back, marking “the homecoming of American college women,” as Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz have termed it.

THE ROAD HOME

According to a forthcoming article by Goldin and Katz in The Journal of Economic Perspectives, the rise in the median marriage age and the advent of the birth control pill mean that women expect to spend more years in the workforce. In college, women are “no longer...majoring in a handful of female-intensive fields,” Goldin and Katz write. Women are increasingly majoring in the same subjects as men as females realize they’ll need to gain workforce skills.

But the changes start well before college. As a result of their new expectations, females are taking more math and science courses in high school, because they know these skills will come in handy later on.

In 1957, for example, there were 1.39 boys for every one girl in a high school math class. By 1992, the male-female ratio was even. “The playing field had been significantly leveled,” Goldin and Katz write.

But on that ever-more-level playing field, women aren’t just matching men—they’re beating them. Goldin and Katz attribute this to the fact that boys are more likely than girls to have behavioral problems.

The much higher rate of disciplinary and behavior problems for males and the far lower amount of time they spend on homework can explain almost the entire female advantage in college attendance for the high school class of 1992, adjusting for family background, test scores, and high-school achievement, according to Goldin and Katz’s research.

One year after University President Lawrence H. Summers pledged to spend $50 million on an effort that is—in part—focused on improving the position of female students and scholars at Harvard, it might seem surprising that, on a nationwide level, it’s the Y chromosome that’s in low supply in college classrooms.

“I think these are extremely interesting long-term trends,” Goldin says. “All the while, boys were disadvantaged, and nobody noticed it.”

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION FOR MEN?

Well, at least one college has noticed it. The dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in March describing her school’s efforts to maintain a male-female balance. She wrote that 55 percent of applicants to Kenyon­ are women, “a proportion that is steadily increasing.”

“The reality is that because young men are rarer, they’re more valued applicants,” Britz wrote. She went on to describe the “hint of desperation in the voices of admissions officers” when their campuses become 60 percent, or more, female.

“Once you become decidedly female in enrollment, fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive,” she wrote.

But Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 says that Harvard does not—and will not—use gender as a factor in College admissions.

“Certainly, I would anticipate that Harvard would never set any qualification for any individual based on gender. It would really run against the idea that we should be admitting the most talented individuals,” he says. “As long as we can be sure we’re getting the most talented people, that’s the only criteria.”

According to Fitzsimmons, the Class of 2010 is currently 52.4 percent female. And Harvard has no plans to institute affirmative action for men.

“It really would be tragic to turn down someone more talented because she happened to a be woman,” he says.

Fitzsimmons adds that it’s possible for Harvard to see a larger share of women if the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI) continues to increase socioeconomic diversity on campus. A great deal of research—including research from Goldin and Katz­—has found that in lower socioeconomic brackets, females tend have higher college enrollment rates than males.

For the Class of 2010, according to Fitzsimmons, 53 percent of HFAI students are women.

Fitzsimmons says that the College’s admissions officers “don’t know what will happen to the gender ratio over time.”

But one thing’s for sure: If, today, Elizabeth Agassiz could watch Commencement ceremonies at Harvard, and at the numerous predominantly female campuses nationwide, she’d be wowed.

—Staff writer Brittney L. Moraski can be reached at bmoraski@fas.harvard.edu.