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In the oral arguments for the affirmative action case, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan made an important yet overlooked point about the future of higher education. She asked whether affirmative action’s rationale could justify favoring men in admissions:
“[T]here's a lot of statistical evidence that suggests that colleges now, when they apply gender-neutral criteria, get many more women than man…could a university put a thumb on the scales and say ‘it's important that we ensure that men continue to receive college educations at not perfect equality but roughly in the same ballpark’?”
Justice Kagan’s question didn’t come from nowhere. Colleges are increasingly facing a dearth of males: 60 percent of college students are female and they outnumbered male applicants last admissions cycle by a whopping 35 percent. Many are worried that this gender imbalance detracts from campus diversity and from the college experience overall. In response, some colleges have discretely started giving preference to male applicants, raising thorny questions surrounding the ethics of favoring a privileged group.
But does this educational gender gap apply to Harvard?
Yes and no — data reveals that our school is better positioned than most to recruit both qualified male and female applicants, but recent trends indicate that Harvard may eventually confront a shortage of qualified male applicants. This piece won’t wade into the philosophical debate of favoring applicants based on gender, but, like the rest of my column, this article hopes to shed light on an under-discussed topic by letting the numbers lead the way.
To start off, why are American males falling behind in higher education? Brookings Fellow Richard V. Reeves recently wrote a book called “Of Boys and Men” that focuses, in part, on this question. It turns out that the educational gender gap begins much earlier than college.
Girls enter elementary school more prepared than boys and this distance compounds over time. As a result, females go on to earn better grades and disproportionately make up the top of their high school graduating class.
So, by the time they apply to college, many boys have been lagging behind their female peers for decades, making them much less qualified on average. This is a large part of the reason why men make up a minority of college students, creating awkward imbalances at many schools. For example, Baylor accepted 7 percent more women than men last year, and men now make up only 41 percent of the University of California, Los Angeles’ student body.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Women have been graduating college at higher rates than men for nearly 40 years. But more people are talking about it now because Covid-19 highlighted and worsened this trend: Roughly 70 percent of the Covid-19 college enrollment decline was due to males.
As with most problems in higher education, high-income schools like ours are able to shield themselves. We have so many qualified applicants – both male and female – that Harvard is able to mostly create a 1:1 gender ratio among its student body even while most colleges are struggling to do so.
But this trend may be unsustainable, and even Harvard may eventually have to break its 50-50 balance. Look at recent applications and admissions, which both display a growing divergence between the genders, indicating that the Harvard applicant pool may be starting to reflect national trends.
We shouldn’t over extrapolate on only two years of data, since this pattern could still reverse. Indeed, this higher education gender disparity has been present for decades, and Harvard has thus far been able to maintain a balanced student body.
But I think if colleges continue to see a dearth of male applicants, it may eventually spillover to substantially affect Harvard’s applicant pool, since the nation-wide educational gender gap seems to be only growing.
Many other selective colleges have already been affected. According to the Hechinger Report, both Vassar and Pitzer College recently received double the number of female than male applicants. A lopsided applicant pool begets lopsided admissions. Even at very-high ranked schools, like Brown, Pomona, and Vanderbilt, male admission rates have been consistently higher than females in the past two years. So, we should not think Harvard’s selectivity renders it immune to this trend.
If men begin to make up less than 40 percent of our applicants, what should Harvard do? I don’t have anything close to a definitive answer, but I’ll make three quick points.
First, we should be careful but principled in linking this issue to race-based affirmative action. If you are against race-conscious admissions because you believe each applicant should be treated solely as an individual rather than as a member of their identity group, you should be consistent in that belief when thinking about gender-conscious admissions.
Secondly, we shouldn’t interpret the educational gender gap as reflective of some broader change in male privilege. Despite men having been the minority in higher education for the past several decades, they still constitute the vast majority of CEOs and politicians.
Finally, beyond the questions of admissions, Harvard may need to think about how each gender requires different types of support from the school, since male students tend to be less engaged. Men in college study abroad less, hold student government offices less often, and take longer to graduate. My guess is that these trends don’t hold at Harvard – at least for the moment – since nearly everyone admitted here is ambitious, no matter their gender.
Even though the educational gender gap may not extend to Harvard yet, more people need to be thinking like Justice Kagan and asking about the future of men in higher education.
Aden Barton ’24, an Editorial editor, is an Economics concentrator in Eliot House. His column “Harvard in Numbers” appears on alternate Mondays.
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