Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

How Gender Differences Shape Student Success in Honors

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

How Gender Differences Shape Student Success in Honors

Article excerpt

In 2014, Jonathan Zimmerman published an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor in which he wrote, "The last time I checked, [men] held most of the important positions of power and influence in American society. And yet, college admissions offices lower the standard for young men--effectively raising it for women--simply to make sure that the men keep coming." This comment was not surprising as, seven years earlier, the U.S. News & World Report had published "Many Colleges Reject Women at Higher Rates Than For Men," in which Alex Kingsbury memorably asserted:

   Using undergraduate admissions rate data collected from more than
   1,400 four-year colleges and universities that participate in the
   magazine's rankings, U.S. News has found that over the past 10
   years many schools are maintaining their gender balance by
   admitting men and women at sometimes drastically different rates.
   The schools that are most competitive--Harvard, Duke, and Rice for
   example--have so many applicants and so many high achievers that
   they naturally maintain balanced student bodies by skimming the
   cream of the crop. But in the tier of selective colleges just below
   them, maintaining gender equity on some campuses appears to require
   a thumb on the scale in favor of boys. It's at these schools,
   including Pomona, Boston College, Wesleyan University, Tufts, and
   the College of William and Mary, that the gap in admit rates is
   particularly acute.

This reality is entrenched in admissions offices that seek a gender balance on campus, and the academic community should consider the ethical and practical consequences of admitting less-qualified men into U.S. colleges. Two important questions are (1) whether the practice of admitting young men with lower grades either validates or undermines the predictive power of the admissions evaluation criteria and (2) whether young men who are by many measures less qualified are as likely to succeed and graduate as their female peers. Those who direct honors colleges and programs need to consider the implications of the gender imbalance for their communities.

Although admissions criteria are not reliably predictive, they do seem to indicate the strength of a student's discipline and organizational maturity. David Sadker, Myra Sadker, and Karen Zittleman--in Still Failing at Fairness: How Gender Bias Cheats Girls and Boys in School and What We Can Do About It--argue that young men and women enter college with different expectations that tend to make young men less successful than their female peers, as measured by grades but also by graduation rates. In their words, "College men have fewer intellectual interests and poorer study habits than college women. They enjoy readings books less, take fewer notes, study less, and play more. Despite their lower efforts, lower grades, and lower likelihood of completing a college degree, men evaluate their academic abilities higher than women" (289).

This situation has social outcomes beyond the simple fact that men are less likely to earn a college degree than are their female peers. Young women who go to college in greater numbers, work harder, have stronger transcripts than those of their male peers, and graduate will earn about the same amount as a man with only a high school diploma (Sadker et al. 203). In short, young men who benefitted from an admissions advantage in college are able to parlay that advantage into earning potential that is not justified by the quality of their academic work. The college admissions advantage, then, strengthens long-lived patterns of gender disparity. In this instance, well-intentioned efforts to build diversity at the college level significantly reinforce structural inequalities that disadvantage women. This system is harmful to young men and women. Young men know that they will achieve fewer social dividends by working harder and can feel entitled to underachieve academically. …

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