Ethical College Admissions: Female Students and Debt

Jim Jump asks whether colleges' practices contribute to gender inequities.


June 19, 2017
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A recently published American Association of University Women report argues that student loans impose a disproportionate burden on women. The report, “Deeper in Debt: Women and Student Loans,” is probably not something you will want to add to your summer beach reading list, because this kind of public policy research rarely make for light or scintillating reading, but the topic is important.

The report shines a spotlight through the lens of gender on some of the meta-issues facing higher education and society. Over the past 40 years the median cost of attending college has more than doubled, and yet median household incomes have remained relatively flat. During the same period government support of higher education has declined, with state support for the cost of attending college dropping from 60 percent of public colleges’ expenses in the late 1970s to 35 percent today. Per student support of higher education by states has declined 18 percent in the past decade alone.

Those changes have occurred at the same time that access to higher education has increased dramatically for traditionally underrepresented groups. Since 1976 nonwhite enrollment at colleges increased from 16 percent to 42 percent, with African-American, Hispanic, and Asian men and women all experiencing triple-digit increases. The enrollment of white women increased 47 percent during that time, and the percentage of women earning bachelor’s degrees is now 57 percent.

The convergence of those three issues -- higher college prices, diminished public funding, and increased access -- has magnified the impact of student loans and resulting debt. The AAUW report makes a compelling argument that the student debt issue impacts women more than it does men.

According to the report, women hold two-thirds of student debt. A higher percentage of women take on student debt (44-39), and women leave college with 14 percent more debt than men. Women also repay loans more slowly, with the gender pay gap as one factor.

Where the report falls short is in explaining why women have greater debt. Women on average graduate with $1,500 more debt than do men over four years despite the fact that the average EFC (expected family contribution) for men is $1,300 higher over that time period. I have no expectation for why the EFC differs that much by gender, but the AAUW offers two theories for why women leave college with more debt, neither of which is convincing.

The first is that men are more likely to attend public institutions. The rationale is that public institutions are more affordable, thereby resulting in less debt. The problem with that theory is that women who attend the same public institutions still end up with more debt.

The second theory involves the gender pay gap. Women who work while attending school earn about $1500 less annually than men who hold a job while in college, a variance not explained by the number of hours worked.

ECA reader Ethan Lewis has another theory not even considered by the AAUW.  Ethan, a former college counselor and history teacher at Wyoming Seminary in Pennsylvania, currently works for Method Test Prep. He also writes the Tip of the C.A.P. (College Admissions Process) blog, and I’m a fan of the detailed, in-depth reports he writes about his visits to college campuses.

When the AAUW report was released Ethan e-mailed me with two questions. He wondered if one reason why women have more debt than men is that colleges give larger grants to men to induce them to enroll because male applicants are scarcer. He also wondered about the ethics of that practice.

That practice is financial aid leveraging, one of the enrollment management tools colleges and universities have turned to in order to achieve strategic institutional goals ranging from attracting the right mix of students to maximizing net tuition revenue. Leveraging is an example of the increasing influence of business practices and big data in college admission and higher education in general.

Leveraging represents a change in assumptions about the purpose of financial aid. It replaces assessing financial need with assessing willingness to pay. It also reflects a change in priorities from meeting student need to meeting institutional needs.

How does leveraging work? College enrollment management offices use sophisticated data analysis, in many cases employing outside consultants, to determine the likelihood of a student enrolling at the institution. They then use algorithms to calculate how much financial aid, either need-based or merit, is required to yield the student or a particular mix of students.

What that means is that you and I may have identical academic profiles and identical financial need and yet receive very different amounts of financial aid. Depending upon other geodemographic factors ranging from where we live to our socio-economic background to intended major to how much demonstrated interest we’ve shown, one of us may receive preferential financial-aid packaging, with a larger percentage of grant or discount. 

Leveraging allows colleges to use financial aid to influence strategic goals ranging from academic profile to diversity to net tuition revenue. Is gender balance one of those strategic goals? There are many small liberal-arts colleges struggling to maintain a 60/40 female to male ratio. In those institutions might male applicants get preferential packaging, with smaller loan amounts?

I have to believe so.  Back in 2006 Jennifer Delahunty Britz, then dean of admission and financial aid at Kenyon College, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about gender balance on college campuses and in the admissions process. In the piece she wrote that “the reality is that because young men are rarer, they’re more valued applicants.”

The article ignited a firestorm of criticism around gender, and that is unfortunate, because it masked a larger truth. The article was one of the most honest insights I’ve ever seen into the essence of selective admission. The rarer any quality or talent, the more valuable it is.

Is financial-aid leveraging and preferential packaging unethical? That’s complicated. 

On one level, an institution would seem to be within its rights to disburse its own financial-aid resources at it sees fit to advance its own goals. At the same time there are issues of equity to be considered. “Treat like case alike” is one of the fundamental principles in medical ethics. Does it apply here as well?

There is also in ethics a principle that an individual shouldn’t be blamed morally for things he or she didn’t choose, things like race or hair color -- or gender. Preferential packaging to male applicants rewards males and penalizes females for accidents of birth.

The ultimate question may be whether institutions would “preach what they practice” with regard to leveraging. Is leveraging a practice they are proud of and willing to proclaim publicly as representing the values of the institution, or something they’d rather keep secret?



Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Virginia. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach, and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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