Ethical College Admissions: Affirmative Action for Men

Jim Jump considers the extra point that was awarded -- only to male applicants -- by Brigham Young.

December 11, 2017

Last week several publications, including “Admissions Insider,” reported that recently leaked documents show that Brigham Young University was giving preference to male students in the admissions process. The documents, originally released by the website MormonLeaks, showed that from 2013 to 2015 BYU made admissions decisions using a 100-point index that included one possible point for “Special Interest,” defined in the instructions as “male applicants.” Brigham Young has since replaced the index with a holistic admissions process.

The story raises a number of interesting questions. Is this an example of affirmative action for men? Do men need affirmative action? Why is there a MormonLeaks website, and do other religions and denominations have their own sacred equivalents of WikiLeaks?

The BYU story follows on the heels of an Atlantic Monthly story earlier in the fall identifying men as the new minority on college campuses. This fall 56 percent of college students are women, almost the same majority held by men as recently as 40 years ago. At many institutions, especially liberal arts colleges, the gender imbalance is even more pronounced.

Is that a problem? Is gender a form of diversity, and is gender balance within a student body important for the health of an institution?

Back in 2006 Jennifer Delahunty, then the dean of admissions at Kenyon College, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in which she argued that gender balance matters in ways large and small on a college campus. She pointed out that once gender imbalance reaches a certain “tipping point” (which she defined as 60 percent female) fewer men -- and fewer women -- find a campus attractive. That essay was roundly criticized as a defense of preferential admissions treatment for male applicants, and the wounds from the criticism were still raw two years later when I approached her to be on a panel on gender and college admission.

I consider that essay one of the best, most honest pieces ever written about college admission. It provides genuine insight into selective admission, as captured in her statement “The reality is that because young men are rarer, they’re more valued applicants.” That’s not unique to gender. In selective admission the rarer any talent or quality is, the more valuable, and vice versa. That’s why athletes, diversity candidates and children of the rich and famous get preferential treatment. Are we proud of or embarrassed by that reality?

Even if one accepts that gender balance is of strategic importance, does it matter how an institution goes about achieving it? It is one thing to increase outreach to men or to add a football team to encourage male applicants, and another to give admission preference to men just because they are underrepresented.

Just how much preference was Brigham Young giving to men? The suggestion that BYU was doing something scandalous doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The index that the university used until 2015 had 100 possible points -- 76 of those points were based on GPA and ACT scores alone. The remaining 24 points gave students credit for a variety of factors ranging from being an active Mormon to extracurricular activities to taking Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses to residing in Alaska or east of Colorado. Being male added one point. The fact that no woman could score higher than 99 sends its own odd message, but I think the number of students admitted to BYU purely because they were male is probably extremely small.

I am not aware of other admissions formulas that give points based on gender, but at one time a number of colleges used formulas that gave points for racial or ethnic diversity. I remember one flagship public university using a ranking system for out-of-state applicants that involved a zero-to-two rating in seven categories. One of the categories was “professional judgment,” designed to take into account other compelling circumstances of various types. A score of 10 on the 14-point scale would generally lead to admission, so receiving two points for professional judgment could tip the scales far more than the one point out of 100 BYU gave to men.

Similarly, one of the issues in the 2003 Supreme Court decision Gratz v. Bollinger was a 20-point bump for minority race or ethnicity as part of the 150-point scale used by the University of Michigan in its undergraduate admissions evaluation. The Supreme Court ruled that process unconstitutional as lacking sufficient “individual consideration.”

In a parallel case the same year, Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court approved a holistic review process used by the law school at Michigan to achieve greater diversity than would have been the case in a race-neutral system.

Moving away from a numerical scale and to a holistic admissions process actually gives a university more discretion to advantage a certain group of applicants, be it members of a racial minority or men. I believe in the ideal of holistic admission, but it can also place a shroud over the admissions process, making it difficult to understand how decisions are made from applicant to applicant.

The broader issue raised by the BYU story regards how gender plays into college admission. Do male and female applicants approach the college search differently? Should applications from men and women be read differently? (Having worked in a boys' school environment for 28 years, I am obviously not purely objective on this issue, if that is even possible.)

Those are hard questions to answer, for two reasons. One is that gender research is a relatively young field, and up until 20 years ago most research into gender focused on women. The American Association of University Women report “How Schools Shortchange Girls” was based on two assumptions. The first was that if girls are being disadvantaged, then boys are obviously being advantaged. But today most research about education and gender suggests that the educational system disadvantages both girls and boys, but in different ways.

The second assumption was that all gender differences are explained by environment. That leads to the second challenge, which is that talking about gender is a minefield, because discussion of gender differences can quickly deteriorate into gender stereotyping. There are differences between men and women that seem difficult to explain away by environmental factors alone, most significant among them developmental differences.

That’s a discussion worth having as well as a topic for another column. Unfortunately that’s not the discussion taking place on those college campuses where there is concern about shortage of men. Those discussions focus on equality of result rather than equality of process. Tilting the scales to achieve gender balance, or to achieve any other particular end result, isn’t defensible and isn’t the answer. It may, however, be a topic if there is ever an AdmissionLeaks website.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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