There is a gender gap in higher education — but not the gender gap that has traditionally existed.
Across the nation’s colleges and universities, women outnumber men — for example, in Harvard’s Class of 2027, women and men made up 53 and 47 percent of the class, respectively.
In 1970, two years prior to the passage of Title IX, just 12 percent of women aged 25 to 34 held a bachelor’s degree versus 20 percent of men, according to the Brookings Institution. By 2020, the percentage of women with a bachelor’s degree rose to 41 percent but was 32 percent for men.
The gender gap that dominated higher education has seemingly reversed. Women, traditionally the minority in undergraduate enrollment, now constitute the majority. Since 2007, women have either been underrepresented or slightly overrepresented as a share of Harvard’s enrolled class, but since 2019-20, an increasingly wider gap has emerged.
Some have suggested that universities have adopted an unofficial policy to give men a boost in the admissions process and create gender parity in admitted classes. Admissions staff prefer to have gender parity in their student body to make their schools more attractive to prospective applicants, the New York Times reported.
Still, Harvard maintained a nearly identical acceptance rate of 3.24 percent for male and female applicants to the Class of 2027 — despite roughly 5,000 more female applicants that year.
Harvard seems to be an outlier in the Ivy League for its extreme parity in admissions rates between male and female applicants, even at the expense of equal shares of men and women in the class.
“The facts are Harvard gets more women than men. The women of Harvard applying are more qualified than men. And last year, Harvard had gender parity in admissions,” Sasha Chada, CEO of admissions consulting organization Ivy Scholars, said in an interview.
Harvard spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo declined to comment for this article.
Using information from public Common Data Sets, The Crimson analyzed enrollment data, acceptance rates, and yield rates of the eight Ivy League universities and MIT, California Institute of Technology, and Stanford University to identify gendered penalties and preferences in the admissions process.
Since the 2007-08 admissions cycle, Harvard’s acceptance rate for male and female applicants has remained roughly equal. Yet women now comprise a greater share of the applicant pool.
For the 2022-23 academic year, the acceptance rate for male and female applicants to the College was nearly identical to the thousandth decimal point: 3.240 percent for men and 3.241 percent for women.
But women comprised 54 percent of the applicant pool, while men were 45 percent.
As the College’s acceptance rate has plummeted over the years, the proportion of admitted male and female applicants has grown increasingly similar — despite fewer male applicants than female applicants.
Chada said women typically outperform men in high school academics and represent a greater share of the applications to universities.
“It only makes sense — application volumes, admissions rates ought to be higher for women. That would be statistically parallel,” Chada said. “But most institutions appear to be making concerted efforts to maintain a balanced gender pool. But Harvard’s an exception there, for the most part.”
“Harvard is maintaining a similar acceptance rate between men and women. So there’s a larger female pool of students at Harvard than male pool of students at Harvard. This doesn’t show indications of significant gender bias,” he added.
In a 2014 article, the Washington Post analyzed data from 128 colleges and universities that admitted fewer than 35 percent of applicants for the fall 2012 term. At 16 of the schools — including Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and Emory — there were equal acceptance rates for men and women.
Jon J. Boeckenstedt, vice provost of enrollment management at Oregon State University, wrote in an email that “if this is an issue, it’s mostly an issue at college admissions offices that have to shape the class” due to “way too many applicants compared to their capacity.”
Still, while Boeckenstedt said men “probably” experience advantages in admissions, these should not be referred to as a form of affirmative action.
“I don’t know that I’d call it affirmative action, because that’s a very specific program designed to address active discrimination in the past, and I doubt anyone would say that men have been the victims of discrimination,” Boeckenstedt wrote.
While Harvard’s nearly identical male and female admissions rates lie on one extreme, another peer institution sits at the other end with more marked differences in acceptance rates — Brown University.
Brown sports the most pronounced difference in acceptance rates and percentage of the applicant pool for men and women in the Ivy League.
For the 2022-23 academic year, Brown had nearly twice as many female applicants than male applicants to its freshman class, with 31,710 female applicants and 18,939 male applicants. The applicant pool was 62 percent female and just 37 percent male.
Despite this dramatic skew in the applicant pool, Brown achieved roughly equal gender parity in its freshman class. The acceptance rate for men was 6.7 percent, while for women, it stood at 4 percent. The admitted freshman class contained a total of 1,275 men and 1,287 women.
Similarly, at Yale, for each admissions cycle since the 2008-09 academic year, male applicants have had a higher acceptance rate than female applicants. For the 2022-23 academic year, women and men made up 58 percent and 42 percent of the applicant pool, respectively, but 51 percent and 49 percent of the enrolled class.
The trend of applicant pools having a greater number of women is not uniform across the board. Schools like Caltech and MIT appear to have an admissions preference for women, not men, in the application process.
Forty-eight schools admitted women at a higher rate than men, the Washington Post reported in 2014. Among them were MIT, Caltech, Carnegie Mellon University, and Harvey Mudd College — which had a gap of 24 percentage points.
Men outnumbered women “significantly” at the four schools, the Washington Post reported.
Just down the Charles River, MIT accepts male applicants at nearly half the rate that it accepts female applicants, according to data from the 2022-23 Common Data Set.
For the past 20 years, the average gap in admissions rates between men and women at MIT has been approximately nine percentage points.
Women have been accepted at a higher rate than men at MIT since the 2003-04 admissions cycle, when the gap in admissions rate was at its peak — roughly 12 percent for men and 29 percent for women.
The gendered gap in admissions rates has narrowed as MIT’s acceptance rate has plummeted. In the 2022-23 admissions cycle, the acceptance rate for men hovered at about 3 percent, while for women, it was 5.5 percent.
At Caltech, there has been an average gap of 10 percentage points between the acceptance rate for male and female applicants since 2003-04. Women were accepted at more than double the rate for men for the 2022-23 school year.
Some who study admissions closely believe that the future of higher education could be altered significantly if current university enrollment trends persist.
Chada wrote that if applicant pools continue to trend in favor of women in terms of the gendered disparity in applications and admissions rates, “it could force some institutions who receive federal funding to face federal scrutiny,” including at the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruled this summer in favor of anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, declaring that race-based affirmative action in college admissions violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
In its 40-page majority opinion, the Court did not discuss gendered admissions preferences or their constitutionality.
Chada said that in the future, he believes it is “quite possible” that “men will be the ones receiving affirmative action and women will be the ones who are accepted by default, who have the bigger applicant pool with the stronger academic qualifications.”
“If current trends continue, we’re looking at an increasingly female system of higher education,” he added.
—Staff writer Rahem D. Hamid contributed reporting to this story.
—Staff writer Michelle N. Amponsah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.