The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At some colleges, your gender — man or woman — might give you an admissions edge

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge. (Christopher Harting/courtesy MIT)

Far more men than women apply to enter the Massachusetts Institute of Technology every year. The imbalance produces a perennial gender gap: MIT’s admission rate for women is significantly higher.

The most recent federal data show 13 percent of female applicants were offered entry to the elite school in Cambridge for fall 2014, compared to 6 percent of male applicants.

This gap has narrowed in recent times — it stood at 12 percentage points in 2007 — but there is no reason to believe it will be erased this year when MIT releases admission decisions Monday for its entering class of 2020.

(Geeky digression: Monday is Pi Day, March 14, or 3/14, echoing the first three digits of the mathematical constant that is equal to any circle’s circumference divided by its diameter. MIT since 2009 has released its admission news on this math-happy moment. )

MIT is hardly alone with its gender gap. Dozens of elite colleges and universities have similar gaps, according to federal education data The Washington Post analyzed for the fall 2014 admission cycle.

See the schools where your gender might give you an advantage

At many top liberal arts colleges, men are accepted at a higher rate than women. Examples: Vassar, Davidson, Bates, Pomona and Swarthmore.

At several schools known for a focus on science and engineering the reverse is true. Examples: Harvey Mudd, Carnegie Mellon, California Institute of Technology and MIT.

College officials say the admission rate gender gaps reflect the dynamics of the market — who applies, for what programs and in what numbers — not bias on the part of the gatekeepers.

“Our applicant pool is very deep with excellent men and women applicants,” MIT’s dean of admissions, Stu Schmill, told The Post. “The data don’t show that it is easier to be admitted as a woman applicant — that would only be true if our male and female applicant pools were equivalent. But the women who apply are a more self-selecting group.

“Therefore, while the number of women applicants is smaller, the quality is extremely high. This is why we are able to enroll a very gender-balanced class, with all students meeting the same high academic and personal standards, and why women do just as well if not better once here at MIT.”

The number of teenage girls taking high-level math and science in high school nationwide is a key factor in admission rates for women at schools like MIT. As that pipeline grows, it will produce more potential applicants.

Another factor that influences admission rates is whether a college aims to enroll as many men as women, or whether it is content to allow for some imbalance in the student body. Women have outnumbered men in U.S. colleges since 1979. They now account for about 57 percent of post-secondary enrollment in degree-granting schools.

Many prominent schools have little or no gender difference in admission rates. Stanford’s admission rate of 5 percent — lowest among national universities ranked by U.S. News and World Report — was exactly the same for men and women. So was Harvard’s rate (6 percent), Northwestern’s (13 percent) and Rice’s (15 percent).

But plenty of schools do have gender gaps. That can become a factor in the intense competition for entry to top colleges.

“It’s something we pay attention to, absolutely,” said Nina Marks, a college consultant based in Montgomery County, Md. Marks said she sometimes counsels female clients to apply early to certain schools with lower admission rates for women. “Brown and Swarthmore come to mind,” she said.

Her reasoning is that applications through the early-decision process have better odds of success than those later in the cycle, which could mitigate any gender-related issues.

Of the top 30 U.S. News national universities, 10 had gender differences of 3 or more percentage points in admission rates. Here are the gaps that favored men:

  • Wake Forest: 32 percent admission rate for women, 38 percent for men, a 6-point gap.
  • Tufts: 15 percent for women, 20 percent for men, a 5-point gap.
  • Brown: 7 percent for women, 11 percent for men, a 4-point gap.
  • Vanderbilt: 11 percent for women, 15 percent for men, a 4-point gap.

Here are the gaps that favored women:

  • Caltech: 16 percent admission rate for women, 6 percent for men, a 10-point gap.
  • MIT: 13 percent for women, 6 percent for men, a 7-point gap.
  • Carnegie Mellon: 28 percent for women, 22 percent for men, a 6-point gap.
  • U. of Michigan: 35 percent for women, 30 percent for men, a 5-point gap.
  • Cornell: 16 percent for women, 12 percent for men, a 4-point gap.
  • U. of Virginia: 30 percent for women, 27 percent for men, a 3-point gap.

Among the U.S. News top 30 liberal arts colleges — excluding all-women colleges — there were just two with gaps of 3 or more points favoring women. They were Harvey Mudd (23 percent female admission rate, 10 percent male rate, a 13-point gap) and Colby (30 percent female rate, 26 percent male rate, a 4-point gap).

Here are the liberal arts gaps among this group of schools that favored men:

  • Vassar: 19 percent admission rate for women, 34 percent for men, a 15-point gap.
  • Davidson: 19 percent for women, 26 percent for men, a  7-point gap.
  • Bates: 23 percent for women, 28 percent for men, a 5-point gap.
  • Pomona: 10 percent for women, 15 percent for men, a 5-point gap.
  • Swarthmore: 15 percent for women, 20 percent for men, a 5-point gap.
  • Bowdoin: 13 percent for women, 17 percent for men, a 4-point gap.
  • Carleton: 21 percent for women, 25 percent for men, a 4-point gap.
  • Haverford: 23 percent for women, 26 percent for men, a 3-point gap.
  • Kenyon: 24 percent for women, 27 percent for men, a 3-point gap.
  • Middlebury: 16 percent for women, 19 percent for men, a 3-point gap.
  • Wesleyan: 23 percent for women, 26 percent for men, a 3-point gap.
  • Williams: 18 percent for women, 21 percent for men, a 3-point gap.

Pomona President David Oxtoby noted that the Southern California college has cut the gender admission rate gap. In 2008, the gap stood at 8 points. By 2015 — a year after the federal data shown above — it had fallen to 3 points.

Oxtoby dismissed any suggestion that men admitted to the college have weaker credentials than women. “We’re a pretty demanding place,” he said.

But Pomona recently shifted its marketing strategy, putting less emphasis on the bucolic atmosphere of the college and more on its dynamic position as a center of learning in a region that is an economic and cultural power. In short, Pomona wants to project an edgier image. That apparently helps sell the school to men, Oxtoby said.

“If you show a bunch of pictures of people sitting around on the lawn, it doesn’t always appeal to 17-year-old males, who want action, activity and so forth,” Oxtoby said. “We’ve changed, to be blunt, how we present ourselves.”

But idyllic vistas remain a powerful draw. Here’s a picture the college sent the other day.