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Worries Over a 2-to-1 Ratio

September 24, 2010

The gender gap among college undergraduates is nothing new. But at the College of Charleston, the gap is looking like more of a chasm.

With a gender ratio of about two to one – approximately 34 percent of students are male and 66 percent are female – the college is an outlier. But that ratio is not too far out of the ordinary for Charleston, say officials, who aren't fretting too much over the gap.

“I think we would like to see more male presence, but on the flip side of that, we are very strong academically,” said Donald C. Burkard, associate vice president for admissions and enrollment planning at Charleston. “Percentages don’t always tell the story.”

Chris Weekley of the Charleston class of 2014 said in an e-mail that he has “always been conscious” of the gap. “I certainly did not choose the college because of the ratio of males to females, and it does not bother me,” he said. “College is a huge change from high school in so many ways that this is just a minor one.”

The college of about 10,100 undergraduates and 1,600 graduate students has been growing its enrollment, Burkard said, but because both sexes are enrolling annually at a relatively equal pace, the difference hasn’t changed much. However, the male population is typically “somewhere around 38 percent,” not too far out of line with other liberal arts colleges, he said.

Gender gaps are nothing new, but they are problematic for colleges because they can be taken to suggest women are seeking higher education, while men are not. They can also cause awkward social environments on campuses and, if they get wide enough, may discourage men from applying.

This potential stigma has caused federal concern about admissions processes. In November the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights began an inquiry into discrimination against female applicants at liberal arts colleges. About a month later the commission chose 19 public and private colleges and universities near Washington, D.C. to investigate. The inquiry is ongoing.

Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, gender discrimination in admissions is legal only at private, single-sex undergraduate colleges. In 2006, the admissions dean at Kenyon College acknowledged in The New York Times that the comparatively low number of men who apply makes them “more valued applicants.” But Burkard said that at Charleston, a public liberal arts college, “there’s no gender bias in admissions.”

According to an American Council of Education report published in January, the college gender gap is stabilizing for most groups except Hispanics, but it’s still significant. Undergraduate enrollment and degree distribution has remained 43 percent male and 57 percent female since about 2000, the report found. (Women account for 60 percent of graduate enrollment.) And females are expected to account for 59 percent of undergraduate enrollment by 2019, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

A 60-40 percentage is generally considered dangerous ground. “It’s already too much of a gap,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of external relations at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. The situation at Charleston is “obviously one of the more egregious cases of gender imbalance,” he said.

But Burkard said 66 percent-34 percent is becoming the new gap peak. “Nationally, averages are probably in the 60-40 range for schools like us,” he said. “How much we’re outside that parameter is debatable.”

Still, Charleston is making some efforts to increase its appeal to male applicants. For instance, it recently established a rugby team and a discovery informatics M.B.A., as well as international business and international studies programs. It's also stepping up its high-school male recruiting. And there has been talk – "purely talk" – about reinstating the football team that dissolved in the early 1900s. Burkard also thinks that although there is nothing explicit in the college's strategic plan aimed at closing the gap, if everything in the plan is accomplished, it could help lower the ratio.

Burkard points to many factors that make the college – and the city – more attractive to women: a strong arts culture, rich history, lots of shopping and restaurants in a beautiful setting. Charleston was also one of the first colleges to admit women and has very strong academic programs, he said.

Annaliese Hughes, a member of the College of Charleston class of 2014, agrees. “It doesn’t really bother me that there are more girls than boys, except it’s harder to get a boyfriend if that’s what someone is trying to do,” she wrote in an e-mail. Hughes, an anthropology and Spanish major from Charlotte, N.C., was aware of the male-female ratio when she applied. “The College of Charleston is a beautiful school and has great academic programs and that overrides the fact that there aren’t quite enough boys to go around.”

Besides, she added, “There are a ton of guys at the Citadel right up the street who are practically begging to meet girls at the College of Charleston."

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