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ND ratios differ from national gender gap

Katie Perry | Friday, November 4, 2005

More than 57 percent of college students nationwide are female – a number that is expected to grow in the coming years – but despite yearly increases in the proportion of women at the University, the current 56 to 44 percent male-female ratio starkly contrasts the U.S. trend.

Women comprise 57.6 percent of college students nationwide, according to an Oct. 20 USA Today article. The 43 to 57 percent male-female ratio grossly diverges from 1960s and 1970s statistics – 30 years ago women constituted 45 percent of university students in the United States.

The current gap shows no signs of narrowing. The U.S. Department of Education estimated that in less than ten years, women will earn 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees and more than half of graduate degrees nationwide.

Gender and enrollment at ND

The Office of Institutional Research said, this semester 56 percent of Notre Dame students – graduate and undergraduate – were male and 44 percent were female, a 13 percent shift in the favor of men from national enrollment averages.

Sociology professor Mark Gunty, who teaches a course on the sociology of masculinity, said in his understanding, Notre Dame’s ratio is based on the space available in residence halls and is not a function of the applicant pool per se.

“The [ratio] at ND is artificial, just as it is at most private, residential-based colleges and universities, especially those of a more selective nature,” Gunty said. “At places with co-ed housing, the mix can be more variable, of course, so the single-sex housing arrangement here contributes to the very stable ratio of men to women over the years.”

But Director of Admissions Dan Saracino said Notre Dame’s enrollment reflects its applicant pool which has been “consistently” more male than female since the University began enrolling women in 1972.

“While the number of women applicants has definitely increased over the past 33 years, in recent years the percentage of women applicants has remained steady at 47 percent,” Saracino said.

Although the percentage of women has risen steadily over the past three decades, the rate of increase is less than national averages and men continue to outnumber women on campus.

Percentages of women enrolled at the University climbed steadily throughout the mid-1970s and saw even more significant change in the 1980s, but for the last five years the proportion of women has stagnated at 44 percent.

Saracino said although there has been no research conducted to explain why Notre Dame has not experienced a further rise in female enrollment, the University is “carefully” monitoring trends in gender ratios – among other characteristics – present in the applicant pool each year.

“We really don’t know why Notre Dame’s experience is truly different,” Saracino said. “We only know that it clearly is unique. It is conceivable that we could begin to reflect what other colleges are experiencing.”

Sociological implications

The recent trend has caused many researchers to look into the potential sociological implications of the decreasing number of men enrolled post-secondary education.

In the USA Today article, writer Michael Gurian said some colleges attract fewer men because those institutions are more directed at female academic endeavors. Colleges must garner more male applicants by emphasizing such “male” interests as sports, he said.

Gunty was unsure as to whether Notre Dame’s culture of athletics encounters an anti-liberal arts bias among men, but maintained that vestiges of pre-1972 campus life continue to be present.

“Notre Dame’s traditions and culture are very strong, some of which date back to its all-male roots,” Gunty said.

The USA Today article said the national gender gap is largest at liberal arts colleges.

“We have a broad mix of majors here, and I doubt that our program offerings have much impact on the gender mix of the student body,” Gunty said.

Despite the diversity of curricula offered at the University, Gunty said it is “clear” that some majors are more attractive to males than females.

Although many areas of study have equitable proportions of male and female students, records from the Office of Institutional Research corroborate Gunty’s claim. Of all computer engineering majors, females account for three percent, while 92 percent of all students who major in art history are women.

The enrollment of men in post-secondary schools may also reflect sociological trends in the way men perceive education and academic achievement.

Gunty said senior survey results indicate that women at Notre Dame do study more than men; however, the extent to which academic performance is regarded as a benefit or detriment to one’s masculinity is mixed.

“At various ages, males might look at academic success in either a positive or negative light,” Gunty said. “One type of masculinity clearly associates intellect and expertise as good for male gender identity, and for other types, intellect is de-emphasized in favor of physical strength.”

Much depends on the subculture of a man’s networks, Gunty said.

“Overall, the status of boys with regard to education and schooling is a hodgepodge,” he said. “Boys seem to reap benefits unavailable to girls, but they are also troubled by conventional schooling practices more than girls.”

Gunty also said the structural economic incentives are not the same for both sexes.

“Males without a college education can expect higher paying jobs than females with a college education,” he said.

Confronting the issue

As when faced with other forms of disparity in its student populations – in race, religion or socioeconomic background – colleges are looking to solutions that foster diversity in a fair manner.

A 2003 Supreme Court decision rejected the University of Michigan formula that awarded bonus admissions points to minorities in order to increase the college’s racial diversity. Similarly, in 2000, a federal judge said the University of Georgia must stop awarding extra points to minorities – as well as males.

The USA Today article said a 2005 study in the admissions method of 13 liberal arts colleges found that “gender was not a significant determinant” in the admissions process.

Saracino said he personally does not support a system in which colleges grant men preferential treatment in admissions decisions.

“It is a form of discrimination,” he said. “Acting ‘affirmatively,’ however, in which we identify and target under-represented groups with special recruitment activities, is something which could be implemented should we deem it necessary.”

Gunty said he doubts college admissions policies will have much impact on the gender makeup at colleges and universities.

“The issues affecting a person’s choice to attend college start way back in childhood and carry on throughout all levels of schooling, and many of those issues have gender overtones and undertones,” he said.

The progress of women is another factor that has contributed to the trend.

Gunty said women have made strides in academic accomplishments, and the options for women to pursue occupations outside the home are much wider than they were in past generations.

“I would not conclude that the gap in male-female college enrollments is simply a sign of female progress in academia,” he said. “I know of no one who would argue that the so-called ‘chilly climate of higher education’ – the female-unfriendly environments at most colleges – has been replaced by a pro-female climate.”