The Volokh Conspiracy

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Why Aren't Feminist Groups More Concerned that So Many Colleges and Universities Discriminate Against Women in Admissions?

Is it they don't want to admit that females do so well relative to males in high school? They don't want appear to be defecting from the left-of-center coalition that supports race-preferential admissions policies? Or is something else driving this?

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This puzzles me. It is routine for many colleges and universities, particularly mid-level liberal arts schools, to discriminate against women in admissions. Believing that they have "too many women," these schools refuse admission to female applicants whose academic credentials would have been more than sufficient for a male applicant. Why don't we hear more complaints from feminist organizations?

Alison Somin and I wrote about this a few years back in a short essay entitled Affirmative Action for Men?: Strange Silences and Strange Bedfellows in the Public Debate Over Discrimination Against Women in College Admissions. We were motivated in large part by the fact that some feminists actually had opposed an empirical study by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on the subject (and as a result the liberals on the Commission cancelled the study).

In the case of a state school or a private professional or graduate school that receives federal funds, such discrimination violates Title IX. But some do it anyway. "We are, after all, the College of William and Mary, not the College of Mary and Mary," one state school admissions officer said.

For private colleges, Title IX is more lenient. It allows sex discrimination in admissions, but not once students are admitted. This was intended to allow single-sex colleges to receive federal funding, but it also allows liberal arts schools that don't want women to outnumber men by too much to have different admissions standards.

But legal or illegal, I would have expected feminist organizations to be at least concerned and to want a study conducted. There are so many things that get labeled sex discrimination that aren't really sex discrimination. It surprises and troubles me that honest-to-goodness sex discrimination gets ignored.

Maybe feminist organizations don't want to draw too much attention to how well females are doing these days in school, because it hurts the narrative that women are the underdogs. But women form a 56% majority of college students. And they are a majority of those in law, medical, and dental school.

Alternatively, maybe the leaders of feminist groups are reluctant to speak out for fear of undermining the case for affirmative action for racial and ethnic minorities. They may perceive themselves as part of a broad coalition of left-leaning activists first and advocates for women in particular only second.

One of the questions we address in the essay is whether the Department of Education's athletic-centric enforcement of Title IX is a contributing factor to discriminatory admissions policies. A time-honored way for a small liberal arts college to recruit male students used to be to offer them the opportunity to play varsity athletics--something they are less likely to qualify for at the big sports-powerhouse universities. But for reasons that we explain in the essay, complex Title IX enforcement policies make this strategy difficult and expensive for schools. Some schools would rather just discriminate outright in admissions. It's easier and cheaper.

These Title IX enforcement policies could be tweaked without causing women who want to participate in athletics to be denied equal opportunity. And doing so would reduce the incentive for schools to just discriminate against women outright in admissions. Such changes would also likely improve opportunities for women who prefer non-athletic extra-curricular activities, such as chorus or drama club. Alas, feminist organizations appear to resent any suggestion that these policies, which they advocated in the first place, may be backfiring.