NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Affirmative Action for Boys

May 23, 2003

As the college counselor at Cincinnati Country Day School, Joe Runge has noticed that more boys than girls are accepted to their first-choice colleges. Adding the numbers over two years, Runge found that 70 percent of the school's boys were admitted early to favored schools, compared with 55 percent of girls.

The differences aren't explained by grades, activities or admissions tests. Rather, what Runge came across is a new form of affirmative action quietly used by many colleges: admissions preferences awarded to boys to maintain balance at a time when more girls than boys attend college -- and have stronger academic qualifications.

  • The admissions preferences allow schools to maintain the diversity that enriches campuses where 56 percent of all students at four-year colleges are female.
  • By using less-rigorous academic standards for male applicants, colleges keep freshman classes from swinging too far out of balance.
  • They also provide needed recognition that grades and test scores provide an incomplete picture of what boys can contribute to a school.

In fact, colleges routinely manipulate their admissions criteria to attract the students they believe will create the best mix. That's why talented athletes often have lower average grades and test scores than their classmates, and why children of alumni and generous donors get favored treatment.

But affirmative action programs for boys raise legal questions.

  • The preference programs that some colleges use to expand the number of minority students they admit are under review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Some lawyers say that if the high court bans the practices that colleges use to foster racial diversity, they will use the decision to challenge the legality of admissions preferences for gender balance.

That would have important implications for colleges quietly committed to ensuring that males don't become increasingly scarce on college campuses.

Source: Editorial, "Threats to college-diversity programs pose risks for boys," USA Today, May 23, 2003.

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