Enrollment Surge for Women

Thanks to improved outreach efforts, engineering and technology universities are seeing a boost in female enrollments nearly across the board.
August 7, 2007

As concern has grown about declining enrollments of men generally in higher education, engineering colleges and technology institutes have the opposite problem: not enough women. But more than two years after Larry Summers thrust the controversy over women in the sciences into the spotlight, a number of technologically oriented colleges have posted significant gains in women's enrollment that admissions officers are attributing in part to beefed-up outreach efforts.

At the same time, administrators are finding that much of the appeal for the surge of women matriculating at technology-oriented colleges comes in specific majors in the life sciences, biomedical engineering and environmental engineering. Taken together, the trends suggest that new ways of targeting specific groups of students can lead to real results in the ultimate makeup of a freshman class. And once that class reaches campus, evidence suggests, the women do just as well -- or even better -- than their male counterparts, in both performance and retention.

The upward trend has shown itself not only at elite institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology, but at their lower- and middle-tier counterparts as well. MIT, for example, tends to have a higher percentage of female students than comparable institutions due in part to its prestige and relative breadth of offerings, with women making up 44 percent of the undergraduate population in the last academic year (compared with 57 percent at colleges nationwide). Even so, the university has seen an increase over the past several years in the percentage of engineering students, specifically, who are female -- to 38 percent of declared sophomores, juniors and seniors in the last year, for example, from 35.6 percent in 2005-6.

Caltech, MIT's West Coast equivalent, also posted gains with a new high of 87 women (37 percent) entering the freshman class this coming fall. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y., has seen a 54-percent increase in female enrollment over the past five years, culminating in an incoming class that will be 31 percent female. While both percentages are relatively small in comparison with national figures, they are on the higher end for comparable schools. Admissions officers hope the increases may eventually signal an end to an era in which terms like "glomming" and "mantourage" describe the archetypal sight of a single, exasperated female surrounded by a gaggle of anxious suitors.

Part of the solution, they contend, is all in the marketing. Last year at Michigan Technological University -- where 24 percent of its 6,544 undergraduate and graduate students are women -- officials placed female students on the cover of the viewbook and arranged for enrolled women to make calls to prospective students who might be worried about the institution's gender breakdown. The result? A significant jump in enrollment last fall, from 19 to 26 percent of the incoming freshman class, said John B. Lehman, Michigan Tech's assistant vice president for enrollment services.

"I think that that air of authenticity appealed to a lot of the women who were shopping around for a degree," he said.

Michigan Tech presents a particularly notable case because its latest admissions cycle, which will determine the makeup of this fall's freshman class, was at least partially subject to the affirmative action ban passed by voter referendum in 2006, after a campaign in which opponents to the measure claimed that it would harm women's prospects in admissions. Despite that change, Lehman said, he expects the percentage of female students to hold at least at the 26 percent level, suggesting that it was outreach rather than admissions practices or quotas that led to the bump in enrollment.

At Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Massachusetts, officials are seeing a similar pattern. When Kristin Tichenor, WPI's vice president for enrollment management, came on board in 2001, 18 percent of the first-year class of 705 was female. This fall, the percentage will have increased to 26 percent out of an enlarged class of 823, a 65-percent boost in female enrollments over that period. As class sizes were increasing, so was the percentage of females, and at an even higher rate, Tichenor said.

WPI's strategy also relied on outreach and communication -- but with key differences. "I attribute our increase in women to two basic changes in our outreach," said Tichenor. "One is simply doing a better job of communicating WPI’s core strengths to women, which have a lot to do with WPI’s academic plan," which emphasizes cooperation, teamwork and how science and technology can allow students to "positively impact the world around them." (Collaborative projects, for example, are part of the degree requirements.)

Tichenor is candid about what works to stimulate interest in female prospective students. "Women are particularly interested in the value-added component of whatever academic studies or career building may do," she said, noting that they are "even more keenly interested in career paths that will allow them to positively impact the people around them and the world around them." Lehman of Michigan Tech added, "The conventional wisdom is that the messages that tend to appeal to women prospective students are messages that you can make an impact on society."

Meanwhile, Tichenor believes that WPI's outreach efforts to students as early as the middle school years are just now starting to pay off. One award-winning program, Camp Reach, brings seventh- and eighth-grade girls to campus for two weeks to learn about careers in engineering and technology.

WPI will also see whether its new SAT-optional policy, which goes into effect in the upcoming admissions cycle, will further lead to an increase in the number of female students who decide to enroll. Tichenor said the SAT "underrepresents the potential of women" who apply, and that while the combined scores for male and female students at WPI are comparable, men may have an advantage of "a couple of points" in math, while women on average do slightly better on the verbal section.

Overall, the trends at these various colleges tend to share common characteristics:

  • A recent dip in female enrollment, followed by a big boost. Women made up 28.5 percent of freshmen last year at Caltech, for example, before rebounding to 37 percent of the incoming class. At Michigan Tech, Lehman said, "We were kind of on a downhill slide until a couple of years ago, and we’re kind of ticking back up."
  • Increases in the number of applications. Admissions officers have noted more applicants at colleges such as the Georgia Institute of Technology and WPI, where the total number increased by 72 percent over the past three years. Applications from women increased in absolute numbers, by 60 percent, although that didn't quite keep pace with the increase in applicants from men there.
  • References to national outreach and education efforts. Not only are individual colleges making inroads with their female applicant pool, but programs across the country are taking aim at girls -- possibly in the wake of the Summers fiasco -- and extolling the advantages of studying science and engineering fields. (Lehman singled out the Girl Scouts for praise.)

Some evidence also suggests that once women get through the campus gates, they tend to do well, on average, even edging out men in some cases. "Women who are here ... tend to bubble up to the student leadership positions much more frequently than men," Lehman said, suggesting that the qualities that are necessary to make them succeed in male-dominated fields also pay dividends in extracurricular activities. "What they don’t realize [before applying] is that once they get here, they are performing at an exceptional level," said Ingrid Hayes, the director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Tech.

Still, university administrators continue to notice that women in the sciences tend, more often than not, to gravitate toward certain majors: biomedical engineering and industrial engineering, for example, or environmental fields. Michigan Tech even saw an unexpected jump in female materials engineering majors. The reasons may be multiple and complex, such as the idea that women are more likely than men to prefer studying subjects that can be used to improve society (which could very well be subjective) and feelings of intimidation about the "harder" sciences -- physics or mechanical engineering.

"I think we do fairly well considering that we are a school that’s primarily known for technology just because, unfortunately, young women face a lot of barriers where people are discouraged from considering institutions such as ours," Hayes said.

At Georgia Tech, she said, women make up a little over 30 percent of the freshman class -- but that figure has remained almost flat for several years. If that high-end public institution is an exception to the general increase observed at comparable universities, it could be a result of its relative prestige: Hayes, like other admissions officers, invokes market terminology to describe the competing choices that students admitted to Georgia Tech and other well-regarded institutions are often faced with.

"We sit right on the edge of the tipping point there, so we try and look at a number of approaches" -- the kinds of outreach practiced by comparable colleges -- "but it’s very difficult for us to get beyond that."

If Georgia Tech has already reached its peak of female enrollment -- for now, at least -- Hayes suggested that the next step will be to improve the yield of students who accept offers of admission.


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