One of the best-kept secrets of college admissions is the boost young men get  at many private colleges – even some public universities. That pro-boys bias, it appears, is destined to remain a secret. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights just killed off an investigation  into admissions favoritism.
For anyone unfamiliar with this issue the logical first reaction is: Why should men get a college admissions break when men already run most of government and big business?
Good question, with a simple answer. A lot more women than men enroll in colleges. Today, 57 percent of four-year degrees go to women; 61 percent of two-year degrees.
Those averages, however, hide a far starker reality on many campuses where the percentage of women has risen above 60 percent, the threshold college officials try to avoid. Why? In part because colleges like diversity – Latinos, African Americans, South Asians, athletes, musicians … and men and women. A campus that’s two-thirds female is not diverse.
There’s another, darker, reason that leads colleges to favor men. When men become scarce on campus, women compete harder to win them and some young men start acting like amateur lotharios, or worse. Not a healthy social situation for anyone.
To avoid that dreaded 60-40 women/men breaking point, some colleges reach deep into their applicant pool to admit men while skimming off the top female applicants. The bias is not difficult to measure – a college admitting far more of its male than female applicants is the first clue. To confirm the bias, check the freshman class profile. Chances are you’ll find A-average girls, B-average boys.
For private colleges, the practice does not appear to be illegal. If they can favor star lacrosse players or violinists – or a kid from Wyoming so the college president can brag about drawing students from all 50 states – why not men in general? Some public universities appear to favor male applicants as well, despite the legal risk.
The probe by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights got launched last year when Gail Heriot, a University of San Diego law professor and a commission member, concluded that the admissions preference amounted to discrimination against women. She’s right, of course. On the other hand, aren’t students from large states such as New Jersey discriminated against when colleges admit that (perhaps) less sparkling candidate from Wyoming?
The argument that gender bias is different from geographic bias (or star quarterback bias) is bolstered by the sheer numbers. Colleges trying desperately to keep the male campus population above 40 percent admit scores of less qualified guys. Grabbing a kid from Laramie, by contrast, amounts to favoring just one student.
“When a private school that holds itself out as a co-ed institution is quietly discriminating against women,” says Heriot, “that should make everyone at least uncomfortable.”
The investigation ran aground, however, when the commission investigators complained that the data they requested from sample colleges came back apples to oranges, raising the fear of an unreliable final report. By a 4-3 vote on March 11 the commission voted to kill the probe, and a follow-up attempt by Heriot earlier this month to revive the investigation also fell short.
Interestingly, Heriot gets no support from national women’s advocacy groups such as the National Organization for Women or the American Association of University Women, the very groups you’d expect to see rising up in protest over discrimination against young women. In fact, they opposed the probe. The women’s groups, says Heriot, see themselves as progressives favoring racial preferences. They fear any curtailment of the authority to favor men could lead to a twin curtailment placed on favoring minorities.
Some Title IX advocates fear restrictions  on favoring men in admissions will prompt some universities to attract men in other ways, such lobbying for legal relief to open up more spots in male athletic teams.
And there’s another reason. Groups such as the AAUW rarely mention the college imbalances favoring women out of fear of triggering this question: If women dominate colleges, what’s the point of having an AAUW? Feminist groups weren’t the only ones happy the investigation suffered a quiet suffocation. The colleges now favoring guys can continue the practice absent scrutiny. And advocates for boys who argue they need this break got what they wanted.
Not everyone walks out a winner, however. Young women vying for spots in freshman classes at many private colleges, for example, will continue to face higher academic standards than their brothers.
The biggest losers are those who appear to gain the most – young men winning those preferences. Those preferences paper over serious problems with our K-12 schools, which are charged with the task of making students – all students, not just girls – ready for postsecondary study that today is a requirement for most decent jobs.
As long as parents of middle-class boys see their sons easily get into college, the appetite for forcing changes at K-12 schools to make academics more boy-friendly will go nowhere. And that means the academic gender gaps will persist.
Richard Whitmire is author of Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That’s Leaving them Behind and The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes On The Nation’s Worst School District.