OBERLIN, Ohio — The Oberlin College student walked into her first art history class of the spring semester and did a quick head count: two men and 20 women.
Too bad, thought Meg Spearman, a senior from Philadelphia. “The classes with more guys are more verbal,” she said.
The dearth of men gets noticed outside class, too – there aren’t many guys around to date, she said.
“That’s the joke on campus,” agreed Victoria Der, another senior at Oberlin.
Oberlin, a historically liberal institution that pioneered coeducation with its founding in 1833, now finds itself discussing how to keep men interested in the school.
Fifty-nine percent of Oberlin’s 2,905 students are women at a time when many colleges believe a close male-female ratio can create a livelier intellectual atmosphere and make a school more attractive socially to high school students who are thinking of applying.
Harry Dawe, associate director of admissions at Oberlin, fueled the discussion last fall when he organized a national forum called “Are Our Boys at Risk?”
In an era when recruiting of racial minorities and women is commonplace, Dawe calls the idea of affirmative action for men “the issue that dare not speak its name.”
The growing percentage of women at the nation’s colleges and universities isn’t a recent phenomenon: Women have outnumbered men on U.S. campuses since 1978. Women now make up 55 percent of college enrollment – about 6.8 million women to 5.5 million men.
How did men become such a minority? One theory is that teen-age boys are eager to join the working world.
“Boys like to strut and make claims and tell everyone they are going to do something and then they don’t do it,” said Clifford Adelman, senior research analyst with the U.S. Education Department.
The gender gap is more pronounced at liberal arts colleges, where women make up 61 percent of the enrollment, according to the American Council on Education. That may be because some liberal arts colleges lack the engineering and business programs that tend to attract men.
The gender gap may be more apparent at small-town schools like Oberlin than at a sprawling state university with tens of thousands of students.
Admissions director Paul Marthers said that Oberlin has a goal of keeping women’s enrollment at no more than 60 percent but that no unqualified male is accepted. Over the past three years, the male share of Oberlin acceptances has increased from 38 percent to 43 percent, in part because men have sometimes received a second look.
Dawe said teen-age boys often develop more slowly than girls and may lack the high grades and SAT scores that catch the eye of admissions officers. Instead, Dawe said, he might look for an applicant’s passionate interest in some area, on the chance that the person might thrive in a college environment less structured than high school.
“We’re looking for students who haven’t become intellectuals” yet, Dawe said. “If that means looking at boys differently, we’re going to do it.”
The risks of letting the gender gap widen and female enrollment increase are clear. A school with too many women might become perceived as a women’s school and become less attractive to both men and women.
“What if it goes to 65 percent? Sixty-five is OK,” Spearman said. “But if it was 80-20 – I wouldn’t want to come here.”
The idea of recruiting men gets into some dangerous political territory.
Nancy C. Dowling, a guidance counselor at Aurora High School in suburban Cleveland, said schools wouldn’t dare hang out the “Men Wanted” sign at college night activities. “I think there would be a lot of backlash from women’s groups,” she said.
While Oberlin stops short of directly recruiting men, it tries to make sure its promotional materials do not turn guys off. When a science brochure was revised several years ago, its floral design was dropped because it seemed too feminine, Dawe said.
At 2,000-student Dickinson College near Harrisburg, Pa., admissions counselors have gone further to bump up male enrollment, now only 39 percent. Gender has been a factor in deciding borderline applications in favor of men, said Robert Massa, a Dickinson vice president.
“If all other things were equal, we admitted them,” Massa said. He estimated that such close calls amount to 5 percent of admission decisions.
He said that if the gender gap became too big, “the college would become less desirable for good students of both genders,” Massa said.
People “might say it’s preposterous for me to say white males add diversity,” he said, but the bottom line is trying to create a rich academic life for students.
On the Net:
Oberlin College: http://www.oberlin.edu
Dickinson College: http://www.dickinson.edu
American Council on Education: http://www.acenet.edu
National Center for Education Statistics: http://www.nces.ed.gov