Saturday, March 25, 2006

What's Up with College, Guys?

John Tierney's NY Times op ed points out that there is a man-shortage on today's college campuses. This is the first I've heard of this, and, I must admit, it surprises me. I appeal to academic friends, readers and bloggers out there--students and faculty--to offer your points of view on the following:
  1. How long has this trend been going on?

  2. Do you think the current Iraq/Afghanistan wars and/or military recruitment policies have any verifiable effect on the number of men currently applying to college?

  3. Are there any social, political, or economic issues leading to a lower number of male college applications today, that didn't exist in prior generations? If so, what are they and what is their effect?

  4. What's your opinion of Tierney's final statement, especially the last sentence: "There's no reason to expect a 50-50 ratio on campus — and certainly no reason to mandate it. Boys don't need that kind of affirmative action. What they could use, long before college, is equal attention."

  5. Finally, what's your best guess as to what the heck is going on here, and what do we do about it?

On Campus, a Good Man Is Hard to Find
By John Tierney
The New York Times
When a boy opens his acceptance letter from college, he now has to wonder what most impressed the admissions officers. Did they want him for his mind, or just his body?

The admissions director at Kenyon College, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, published an Op-Ed article this week revealing an awkward truth about her job: affirmative action for boys. As the share of the boys in the applicant pool keeps shrinking — it will soon be down to 40 percent nationally — colleges are admitting less-qualified boys in order to keep the gender ratio balanced on campus.

This week's revelation did not please Kim Gandy, the president of the National Organization for Women, who told me that she might challenge the legality of affirmative action for male applicants. She and I are not normally ideological soulmates, but I have some sympathy with her on this policy.

It's not fair to the girls who are rejected despite having higher grades and test scores than the boys who get fat envelopes. It's not fair to the boys, either, if they're not ready to keep up with their classmates. Affirmative action just makes them prone to fail, and is probably one of the reasons that men are more likely than women to drop out of college.

After consulting with the federal Education Department, I can confidently report that this discrimination may violate the law — or then again, it may not. Either way, I agree with Gandy that public colleges shouldn't practice it, because the government shouldn't favor one group over another.

Gandy's also wary of allowing private schools like Kenyon to discriminate, and she's skeptical of their justification: that they need a fairly even male-female ratio on campus to attract the best applicants of either sex. I'm not sure if that's true, but I trust the colleges to know better than me or Gandy or federal lawyers. As long as a school is private, let it favor whomever it wants — men, women, alumni children, Latinos, African-Americans — without any interference from the Education Department.

What the department should be doing is figuring out how to help boys reach college. The gender gap has been getting worse for two decades, but the Education Department still isn't focusing on it. Instead, it has an "educational equity" program aimed at helping girls and women.

The department is paying to encourage African and Slavic girls and women in Oregon to pursue careers in science. There's a grant to help women in West Virginia overcome "traditional, outdated 19th-century attitudes" by pursuing jobs in blue-collar trades. Another grant aims to motivate women at the Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn to study math.

Those are all noble goals. I'd be glad to see the women in Brooklyn take up advanced calculus. But the chief "equity" issue at their college is the shortage of men, who make up barely a fifth of the student body. What happened to the boys who didn't make it?

Boys are, on average, as smart as girls, but they are much less fond of school. They consistently receive lower grades, have more discipline problems and are more likely to be held back for a year or placed in special education classes. The Harvard economist Brian Jacob attributes these problems to boys' lack of "noncognitive skills," like their difficulties with paying attention in class, their disorganization and their reluctance to seek help from others.

Those are serious handicaps, but they could be mitigated if schools became more boy-friendly.

A few educators have suggested reforms: more games and competitions that appeal to boys, more outdoor exercise, more male teachers, more experiments with single-sex schools. But those ideas have gotten little attention or money. Schools have been too busy trying to close the gender gap in the few areas where boys are ahead, like sports and science.

No matter what changes are made to help boys, they'll probably still be less likely than girls to go on to college, simply because girls' skills and interests are better suited to the types of white-collar jobs that now require college degrees. Boys will remain more inclined to skip college in favor of relatively high-paying jobs in fields like construction and manufacturing.

There's no reason to expect a 50-50 ratio on campus — and certainly no reason to mandate it. Boys don't need that kind of affirmative action. What they could use, long before college, is equal attention.

Photo credit: John Tierney. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

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