Back in olden days--in 1974, to be exact--Mr. T. Harding Jones of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton lamented how "coeducation has ruined the mystique and the camaraderies that used to exist" on campus. Admitting girls to Princeton, he predicted, was "going to prove a very unfortunate thing."
I landed at college a few years later, at the very moment the number of female undergraduates nationally reached parity with that of men--though my school was still 3-to-2 male. Like my peers, I suspect, for every pterodactyl who thought I had no business being there, I found three gentle mentors who smoothed the way.
But a gender gap has reopened: if girls were once excluded because they somehow weren't good enough, they now are rejected because they're too good. Or at least they are so good, compared with boys, that admissions committees at some private colleges have problems managing a balanced freshman class. Roughly 58% of undergraduates nationally are female, and the girl-boy ratio will probably tip past 60-40 in a few years. The divide is even worse for black males, who are outnumbered on campus by black females 2 to 1.
While educators debate whether there is a "boy crisis" that warrants a wholesale change in how to teach, colleges are quietly stripping the pastels from brochures and launching Xbox tournaments to try to close the gap in the quality and quantity of boys applying. "It's a gross generalization that slacker boys get in over high-performing girls," says Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions at Kenyon College, "but developmentally, girls bring more to the table than boys, and the disparity has gotten greater in recent years."
Of course, admitting this is taboo, as Delahunty learned two years ago. She was in marathon committee meetings, stacking glorious girls on the waiting list while less accomplished boys wiggled through, when she got an e-mail informing her that her own daughter had been wait-listed. The experience inspired her to write a confessional Op-Ed, "To All the Girls I've Rejected," for the New York Times, responses to which lit up her inbox. "It pissed off the feminists and the misogynists--I got both sides of the spectrum," she told me. "The misogynists said women already have too many advantages. And the feminists said, How dare you not treat women like men." But what most amazed her was the reaction of young women: by and large, they assumed this is just how things work. "Why aren't they marching in the streets? That's the part that slays me," Delahunty says. "It isn't fair, and young women should be saying something about it not being fair."
But when it comes to private-college admissions, the law is murky, the process opaque, the needs of the institution primary. This includes ensuring that the freshman class is not 70-30 female, because that makes the school less attractive to male and female applicants alike. U.S. News & World Report found that the admissions rate of men at the College of William and Mary, for example, was an average of 12 percentage points higher than that of women--because, as the admissions director memorably told the magazine, "even women who enroll ... expect to see men on campus. It's not the College of Mary and Mary; it's the College of William and Mary."
But the gap persists on campus, where women tend to win more honors, join more clubs, do more volunteer work. "We sit and talk about why no men are applying for leadership roles," says Jason Zelesky, associate dean of students at Clark University in Massachusetts, which is 60-40 female. "Do we need to concentrate more on traditional masculine words--'Be a leader on campus,' as opposed to 'Come join our team'?" He's launching a "men helping men" support program to help boys adjust to their minority status.
I wonder if there's a price boys pay for the "soft bigotry of low expectations." The college deans I talked to worry that there is some message boys are not receiving, role models they are missing, that speaks to the importance of an education both broad and deep. "I found it harder to talk to guys in interviews, even after 40 years," says Haverford dean Greg Kannerstein, "because they seem narrower in their interests than the women." He wonders if schools and parents have wrapped boys in cotton, focused on "support" at the expense of accountability. "For a long time, guys were left on their own, which was not so great either," he says. "Now maybe we're shielding them a little too much." That would be the crowning irony, if it turns out that girls emerge stronger somehow from having the game rigged against them.