The dirty little secret of American colleges is …
Well, I could finish that sentence a number of different ways. One would probably deal with grade inflation, which in my impression has reached absurd proportions, especially in humanities depts. (where there are less likely to be patently right-or-wrong answers) and especially at elite colleges, where students, first, have gone through high school getting more or less straight As and have a powerful expectation of still getting them and, second, actually need good grades for their grad and professional school applications. (I was talking to an Ivy League prof the other night who said that the current standard is: A=excellent work, A-=good work, B=passable and undistinguished work. He said the among the many students who complain about grades, the biggest subset is students whom he has generously given A-s.)
Another unwashed secret has to do with admission of the children of bigtime donors. Someone at another elite school, with reason to know, told me that if your mom or dad has given big bucks, and you have the most minimal qualifications—along the lines of being able to eat without food coming out of your mouth—you are in.
But my theme today is affirmative action for guys. The United States Commission on Civil Rights announced today that it will investigate nineteen colleges for gender bias in admissions decisions. The specific bias is favoring males, and the reason for the bias is that without it, many colleges would resemble a regiment of women. The schools were reportedly randomly selected, with the exception that they are all within 100 miles of Washington, D.C., meaning that the Commission can subpoena them.
My own school, the University of Delaware, is on the list, and I imagine it is fairly typical, with a female-male ratio of 58-42 percent. UD reports that exact same ratio every year back to 2004, which raises some red flags on my part—60 percent being widely seen as the tipping point when excessive femaleness becomes a problem at a school, in terms of attracting males and females. So, yes, I suspect that there has favoritism towards guys in the admissions department. (By the way, things would be even more lopsided if we didn’t have an engineering school, with 79 percent male enrollment.)
But whatever the school, all this has always remained a suspicion: if such favoritism did indeed exist, it could not be said out loud. The only exception, to my knowledge, came when the dean of admissions at Kenyon College wrote a memorable New York Times oped nearly four years ago, “To All the Girls I’ve Rejected.” She described her staff struggling with the decision on a bright, engaged female student with grades and board scores in the middle of Kenyon’s range. The official admitted:
Had she been a male applicant, there would have been little, if any, hesitation to admit.
(She went to say that they ultimately decided to admit the student. It was a shrewd choice of example: if she had talked about a female student who hadn’t been admitted, the hue and cry would probably still be ringing through the halls of academe.)
It’s not exactly clear what power the Civil Rights Commission would have over these colleges, especially the private ones. But in any case, I say have at them, and get this stuff out in the open. The fewer secrets, the better.