While women are getting ahead nationwide, their rate of advancement at Penn and at other elite institutions has grown stagnant.
According to information about the class of 2012 from the Department of Education, women earn close to 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees nationwide. The report also shows that more women than men have graduated from with bachelor’s degrees in every year since 1982.
However at Penn, the class of 2016 had a 50-50 male-to-female ratio, a number that has remained fairly constant for the past couple of years. Other Ivy League universities have maintained a similar ratio.
Graduate School of Education professor Peter Kuriloff attributes the disparity to probable systematic affirmative action towards men at most elite institutions and liberal arts schools.
He believes there is a disparity between national trends and elite institutions because these schools can “afford” to maintain a fixed ratio between men and women.
“If you are desperate for students, you take who you can get,” he said. “The Ivy Leagues get a ridiculous number of applicants, and I can assure you, the women in that pool are stronger.”
Dean of Admissions Eric Furda believes however, that Penn does not fit in with the national trend of a higher number of female graduates because of the presence of the Engineering and Wharton undergraduate schools, making it distinct from some other Ivies and institutions nationwide.
Furda said the Wharton school usually has between 40 to 44 percent women, and the Engineering school usually has around 34 to 36 percent women. Because of these lower numbers, Penn’s overall ratio is more even. Meanwhile, the College is composed of 56 percent women and 44 percent men.
“That’s where the campus kind of evens out,” Furda said. “If we didn’t have the engineering and business school, we would probably see a campus that fits in more with the national trend.”
Furda does see the trend in the College though, where the applicant pool for the incoming class of 2017 is around 57 percent women and 43 percent men.
“National demographics play out a lot more in the College of Arts and Science pool,” he said.
However, Kuriloff believes that even if one isolates the College, or looks at elite liberal arts institutions, there is a lower proportion of women represented in the schools than the proportion of women applicants.
Kuriloff is not alone in his view. A survey of admissions directors conducted by Inside Higher Ed in 2011 found that male applicants of all races are far more likely to benefit from affirmative action-like policies than female applicants.
The reasons why institutions try to encourage more men to attend are varied, according to Kuriloff.
“If they took students purely based on merit in every field, you would have campuses that look very much more female,” he said. “My hypothesis is that if the ratio were very skewed, they would have a hard time attracting students.”
Behind the numbers
Graduate School of Education professor Laura Perna believes that rather than affirmative action towards men, the disparity between the national and Ivy League male-to-female ratio should be attributed to differences in socioeconomic status of applicants.
“Some of where the gender gap is larger is with folks from lower socioeconomic [statuses],” Perna said. “Penn’s applicant pool tends to be more upper middle class.”
While Perna has seen no evidence for affirmative action towards men at Penn, she said it is “conceivable that a place like Penn, which has many more applicants than enrollment spots to fill, would aim for a class that is representative of the wider population.”
While the ratio in the College may be more similar in its balance of women and men to other universities, legal studies and business ethics professor Janice Bellace said the reason why all elite liberal arts colleges may not follow the nationwide trend is because a greater proportion of men apply to Ivy League schools for liberal arts rather than studying the same program at a less selective school.
Perna points to three schools — Harvard, Yale and Princeton — that do not offer engineering or business programs but still maintain an even male to female ratio.
“Men who are interested in the humanities and social sciences may be particularly interested in going to an Ivy League university (because of the better job prospects…),” Bellace said in an email.
Bellace also believes that Penn has an equal number of males and females at the undergraduate level because the School of Nursing, although more than 90 percent female, is not large enough to compensate for the differences in male and female ratios in Engineering and Wharton.
Contrary to overall numbers, one school at Penn does have more females than the national average.
While only roughly 34 to 36 percent of the Engineering school is female, the national figure stands at around 20 percent at the undergraduate level.
Director of Advancing Women in Engineering Michele Grab said that the reason Penn has higher-than-average numbers of female engineers is because of the popularity of bioengineering among Penn students.
“Our numbers are generally higher than the national averages because of the large numbers of women interested in Bioengineering and Chemical Biomolecular Engineering (both of which have nearly 50 percent women) as opposed to Mechanical Engineering which is nationally the most popular major,” Grab said in an email.
Women making strides
According to the Department of Education, women in the class of 2012 have not just earned more bachelor’s degrees, but also more associate’s, master’s and doctoral degrees.
Kuriloff said that the reason why it may appear that women are overtaking men nationwide is not because men are underperforming in any way.
“Men are applying in the same numbers they have always applied … since the Vietnam War,” he said. “The difference is that women are applying in much greater numbers.”
Bellace agrees with this view, and said the reasons for women seeking higher education in larger numbers is because of improved legislation and job access for women.
“Historically, females did better in school than males, until about age 13,” Bellace said. “Once teenage girls realized that they had job prospects … they continued to perform well in school.”
Perna said that rational economic behavior, with women doing a cost-benefit analysis as to whether they should seek higher degrees, can explain the phenomenon.
“There are studies that suggest that … the earning premium associated with completing college is higher for women than men,” she said. “So women are making rational economic decisions when deciding to go for higher education.”