Gender and College Admissions: William and Mary Dean Talks Back

Yesterday I discussed why boys have an easier time than girls getting accepted to college at some schools. You can read it here. Part of that post included admissions statistics for several schools, including the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where boys have an easier time getting in because more girls apply. Here is a response from William and Mary Admission Dean Henry Broaddus, who takes a broad look at gender and college admissions. Read it and tell us what you think.

By Henry Broaddus
Nov. 17, 2009
In 2007 a reporter from U.S. News and World Report interviewed me for a story about the disparity between admit rates for men and women in the applicant pool at William and Mary.

I made the point to him that one of the reasons for our interest in gender balance is that college-bound women overwhelmingly prefer coed institutions. In the aftermath of the difficult decision for Randolph Macon Women’s College to become the coed Randolph College, for example, it was widely reported that only 3% of female students even consider a single-sex institution for their undergraduate experience. At some ambiguous tipping point, an institution may begin to appeal to a narrower demographic if it begins to appear more like a single-sex environment.

I went on to say that at my institution, we want to appeal broadly to both men and women. We are, after all, the College of William and Mary, not the College of Mary and Mary.

Well, you can guess which portion of that statement made it into the article. The quote subsequently was picked up in a piece that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education and then by a reporter for Time. More than two years later it continues to turn up in news stories and blog articles (most recently here), and if I ever have grandchildren who Google me, I expect it will be one of the first things they find. Although my remark had as its ultimate defense the fact that it was true, I still heard from plenty of people who thought it showed poor taste. Some went so far as to accuse me of misogyny.

(And I don’t say any of this with intent to paint myself as a victim. People’s attention, misunderstanding and even animosity, I’m sorry to say, come with the job. They’re occupational hazards for anybody in the business of giving families bad news far more often than he gives them good news.)

Interestingly, in response to the U.S. News article and its journalistic spawn, which cited that our admit rate was higher for male applicants than for female applicants, we ran additional numbers on admitted students for the year in question. We discovered that among males admitted to William and Mary, their mid-fiftieth percentile range on the SAT was slightly higher than the range for admitted females. The women, on the other hand, had a higher average rank in class.

This was not an engineered outcome or even something we calculated until the charge of gender bias was leveled, and I’m not inclined to read too much into it.

But we might suspect that our holistic, individual review rewards what can appear to a reader as untapped potential in certain young men even as the same process discounts what appears to be stronger achievement in the classroom by young women.

Whether that’s heightened by a committee’s interest in gender balance, the modest rarity of males in a pool that’s majority female, or a committee’s consideration of other factors such as extracurricular involvements and writing samples, I’d hesitate to say with any certainty.

What I can say is that our committee admits only those it believes will be successful at William and Mary, and our high retention rates show that we have an excellent track record by that measure. At a larger level, here’s what I personally believe about the matter of gender and college admissions:

1) I stand by the assertion that institutions that market themselves as coed, and believe that the pedagogical experiences they provide rely in part on a coed student body, have a legitimate interest in enrolling a class that is not disproportionately male or female. On a residential campus intended to foster community among a diverse group of students that includes both men and women, this interest strikes me as entirely appropriate.

2) I believe that self-selectivity within applicant pools is an often overlooked factor to consider. In the data U.S. News reported in its article, MIT exhibited the largest relative discrepancy between the admit rates (in 2006) for men (10%) and women (22%). Now, should the public believe that MIT’s admissions office holds its women to lower standards for admission than those employed for men? Of course not. Women who apply to MIT are a highly self-selected and academically capable group despite being a comparatively small group within that particular applicant pool.

3) I believe that the difference in admit rates alone as a basis for comparing any two groups within an applicant pool is overly reductive, because when it comes to the calculation of admit rate, the quality of the numerator matters far more than the size of the denominator. If we admit everyone with the surname Allen in our pool and nobody with the surname Smith, it’s just as likely to mean that the Allens were stronger applicants or that the Allens comprised a smaller group of applicants more prone to statistical inflation, than it is to mean we have any bias against Smiths.

And for the record, speaking as one who is proud of the fact that William and Mary admitted its first female students in 1918, well ahead of the national trend, it’s not the College of William and William either.

By Valerie Strauss  |  November 18, 2009; 9:39 AM ET
 | Tags: College of William and Mary, college admissions, gender Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Previous: A critical look at the SAT and ACT
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Mr Broaddus makes some good points. Certainly good enough to satisfy me, merely a Virginia taxpayer, who has no stake in William and Mary (or Bill and Mar as it is sometimes called).

In my view, the primary goal of a public institution is to graduate as high a percentage of entering freshman as possible in no more than four years. William and Mary seems to be doing that job in spades. So I don't see any reason to question the process by which they select their freshman classes.

Another non problem put to rest.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | November 18, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Although this issue has been bubbling for quite some time, it came to the forefront as a result of a 2006 op-ed in The NYT by the dean of admissions at Kenyon College who admitted that Kenyon gave boys preferences.

Although Mr. Broaddus does a nice dance step, the fact is that the most competitive schools (Harvard and to a slightly lesser extent colleges like UVA) attract the very top students and can fill in their classes with top boys that can match the top girls they accept. But as the pendulum swings down a bit to the Kenyons and W&M's, those schools simply do not have the same caliber of boy applying. Yes they can use SATs as a justification, but overall those schools are admitting a slightly less qualified boy than girl. In other words, they give boys preferences.
The follow-up question for Mr. Broaddus should be to ask him, if he does in fact believe W&M accepts an equal caliber of male student, how those males compare academically at W&M with the females?

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | November 18, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

The dean's argument is persuasive; the school's actions seem reasonable and, ultimately, beneficial to society as a whole. No state school in this country is comparable to the truly great institutions of higher learning such as Harvard, esp. with respect to the undergraduate component. There are, to be sure, good state schools--the best among them being Michigan, of course--but they are a heckuva lot easier to win admission to than a school such as Harvard. The difference between a 9 percent acceptance rate for Harvard and an in-state acceptance rate for UVA and W&M of historically roughly 40 percent says it all. What's great about VA is that residents have those two higher education options (and others). Each state should be so lucky to have comparable institutions.

Posted by: DA12 | November 18, 2009 1:19 PM | Report abuse

"MIT exhibited the largest relative discrepancy between the admit rates (in 2006) for men (10%) and women (22%). Now, should the public believe that MIT’s admissions office holds its women to lower standards for admission than those employed for men? Of course not."
Do you have data to suggest otherwise?

Posted by: staticvars | November 18, 2009 11:38 PM | Report abuse

This, to me, is the dean's most telling quote:

"But we might suspect that our holistic, individual review rewards what can appear to a reader as untapped potential in certain young men even as the same process discounts what appears to be stronger achievement in the classroom by young women."

This is exactly what's happening. William and Mary is rewarding potential by boys at the expense of actual achievement by girls, and the only reason it's going on is because William and Mary gets many more applications from girls and wants a gender balanced class. I'm not suggesting that potential shouldn't count; I'm suggesting that potential shouldn't be evaluated differently depending on gender -- at least not in a state school.

The dean's argument is also unpersuasive because he supports it by the wrong data. The question isn't how the objective qualifications (grades and test scores) of admitted men compare with those of admitted women; the question is how the qualifications of admitted men compare with DENIED women.

Here's a suggestion. William and Mary waitlisted 2921 applicants in 2008 and ultimately denied admission to all by 159 of them. By definition, a waitlisted student is one whom the college would have admitted had space been available. William and Mary should do an analysis of the objective qualifications of waitlisted women versus admitted men. Those results would likely tell us more than the numbers for admitted women.

Posted by: postreader38 | November 19, 2009 12:30 PM | Report abuse

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