On Campus

The New Minority

Why some universities are talking about affirmative action — for men

Outside the Simon Fraser University bookstore at 9:30 on this January morning long queues are forming. The students look like any other group of young people: some decked out a little too fashionably for a day of sitting in class, others slumming comfortably in sweatpants and SFU-emblazoned hoodies. The big difference between this group and one you might bump into at a mall is the girls—not the look of them, but their sheer numbers.

SFU is a typical Canadian university: women are the overwhelming majority. Fifty-seven per cent of the undergrads here are female; the female share of the student body can run as high as 65 and even 70 per cent on some Canadian campuses. Nationally, men only account for 42 per cent of Canada’s full-time undergraduate students. And because they drop out in greater numbers than women, the gender gap is even wider among graduates. If current enrolment trends hold, 59 per cent of our future doctors will be women, 53 per cent of lawyers, 67 per cent of teachers, and 68 per cent of social scientists. It’s a similar picture in the U.S. — and one that some American universities believe needs to be reversed through an affirmative action program for the new, disadvantaged minority: men.

Women first overtook men on university campuses in 1981, and the female share of the student body has trended upward ever since. The cause appears to be straightforward: women outperform men in high school and outnumber men among the pool that universities draw from, namely average to above average students. A recent StatCan survey showed that academic achievement in high school is one of the main reasons women outnumber men in university. Girls have stronger study and reading skills, get higher marks, do more homework, and perform better on standardized tests.

What to do? To keep their campuses from turning into pink ghettoes, some U.S. universities have taken to stacking the deck in favour of male applicants. Last summer, a U.S. News and World Report investigation of 10 years worth of admissions revealed how some private colleges are tweaking admission requirements to try to keep the gender gap closer to parity. That means making it easier for men to get in, and harder for women. At one school, Wheaton College, the average female admit rate over 10 years was 21 per cent lower than the rate for men.

Jennifer Delahunty Britz, dean of admissions at Kenyon College, recently admitted what many admissions officials are hesitant to even discuss: in the U.S., men have an easier time getting into some universities. Britz, in an op-ed in the New York Times, described debating with colleagues about whether to admit a young woman who was a “leader/president/editor/captain/lead actress,” with six advanced placement courses and 300 hours of community service under her belt. “Had she been a male applicant, there would have been little, if any, hesitation to admit,” Britz wrote.

So what are Canadian universities doing to respond to the boy crisis? Nothing.

Canadian university admission officials contacted by Maclean’s were unanimously opposed to affirmative action initiatives for male applicants. Kate Ross, registrar of SFU, said, “I can’t even imagine that this is the direction that we would go. We base admission on the basis of qualifications only.” Most universities aren’t even tweaking recruitment materials to attract men. (U.S. schools have been moving away from pastel to primary colours, which are said to appeal more to males.)

Are Canadian universities taking the right approach? No, according to two experienced university officials, writing last spring in The Walrus magazine. “Ignoring the apparent widespread disengagement of young men could result in a huge loss of human capital,”wrote Clive Keen and Ken Coates.

Keen, a former director of lifelong learning at the University of Prince Edward Island, believes that universities are also failing to engage students, particularly men. “We have a very serious retention rate problem. People are coming to university and not being engaged and dropping out in droves,” he said in an interview. “Males need to know why they are studying something. Universities are still functioning on the assumption that students should be turned on about academics.”

However, it is possible that Canadian universities are right to ignore the gender gap. It is worth noting that male university enrollment is not falling; in fact, male enrollment numbers are at record levels. The percentage of young men who go on to university is still growing; it’s just that the participation rate for women is growing even faster. What may appear to be a boy crisis is actually a girl success.

And those men who are not choosing university are not necessarily staying away because of barriers. At least some may be responding to economic incentives. Between 2000 and 2005, average real earnings increased faster for young, less educated male workers than any other group, including female and male university graduates. In fact, wages for young men with university degrees fell by almost 3 per cent. This trend is likely due to the boom in construction, oil and gas, and mining. While university-educated males still have better long-term wage prospects than less-educated men, the jump in blue collar, male dominated jobs in the last five years has given more young men the option of making money now.

With the economy already experiencing a labour shortage, particularly in Western Canada, and the looming retirement of Baby Boomers about to reduce the percentage of the population that is in the labour force, it may not be such a bad thing that universities aren’t pulling more male workers out of those blue collar jobs and into four-year degree programs. In addition, community colleges (where enrollment is currently close to gender parity) may be better positioned than universities to respond to some post-secondary training needs, according to Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. “Increasingly, what you are going to see is demand to blend education and the workplace,” he said, noting that colleges can respond quicker to the training needs of the local economy and programs are shorter, therefore getting those young men back into the workforce quicker.

At the same time, wages for women with university degrees are still growing. A 2007 Statscan report showed that the higher education levels of women contributed to the narrowing of the gender wage gap, particularly in the 1990s. A StatsCan report examining why most university students are women noted that “women face higher economic returns to completing a university degree.” The StatsCan paper also argued that parents place higher academic expectations on girls and that there is more social pressure on women to go to university. This could be because women need the advantage of a university degree to compete.

However, despite the fact that more women are graduating from university, males with university degrees earn higher average incomes than comparably educated women. And the majority of top jobs still go to men.

And so, for the time being it seems that Canadian universities will continue gender-blind admission practices. But that doesn’t address the more immediate problem women are facing on campus. Ashley Brown, a second-year SFU arts student, sums it up: “If there were more guys, they’d have to try a little harder to impress us. As it is, it’s slim pickings around here!”