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Feds end probe of college gender bias

By Daniel de Vise
Wednesday, March 16, 2011; 7:51 PM

A federal investigation of whether colleges discriminate against women in admissions to promote gender balance has ended without findings or a definitive conclusion.

Federal civil rights commissioners suspended the investigation at a meeting Friday after some members of the panel had questioned the quality of the data they had collected from 15 colleges in the Washington area.

The inquiry, launched in 2009, was supposed to examine admission data to determine whether colleges favor men in admissions. Because women are about 60 percent of all college students, some schools admit them at significantly lower rates than men.

A few institutions, including the College of William and Mary, acknowledge gender as a factor in admissions. In fall 2008, William and Mary admitted 43 percent of the male applicants and 29 percent of the female applicants.

The investigation was nearly complete. But members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights voted 4 to 3 to end the study. Commissioner Dina Titus, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the panel shouldn't risk "putting out there misleading conclusions based on what we have admitted upfront is inadequate or perhaps faulty data." Titus said the data were hard to compare because schools collect admissions statistics in different ways.

Commissioner Gail Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego who proposed the study, said it fell victim to politics. The investigation was voted down by a bloc of three Democratic appointees, joined by one Republican appointee. "The Democratic appointees have been opposed to this investigation," she said.

Heriot told fellow commissioners that suspending the investigation was "a travesty," and she said the data problems were far from insurmountable.

The investigation focused on a group of colleges within 100 miles of Washington, all of them nonprofit and at least moderately selective.

Heriot said that she reviewed some of the data collected and that "there did appear to be evidence of discrimination, but no, I can't draw firm conclusions from it."

Commissioners also voted down a proposal to make the data available to researchers and the public.

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