Pro-Male Affirmative Action?

January 2012

In a culture quick to claim victim status, the existence of a concerted effort to hush up systematic discrimination may seem surprising -- particularly when that discrimination is against women. Yet as the University of San Diego law professor Gail Heriot and Alison Somin write in the Federalist Society's Engage, there's been a notable lack of public debate about pro-male bias in the college admission process.

It's an open secret, they explain, that a growing number of colleges are holding male and female applicants to different standards to inflate the number of male students. Women already receive about six in ten bachelor degrees, so many colleges that don't want their student bodies skewed too heavily female are making it easier for men to enroll. Just how prevalent is the practice? It's tough to say, since, as Heriot and Somin describe, an effort by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to study the situation was recently terminated.

There are numerous reasons why so many would prefer to ignore, rather than analyze, this aspect of academic life. One might expect feminists to be outraged about universities systematically favoring less qualified men over higher-achieving women. But, as Heriot and Somin explain, peculiarities in Title IX enforcement encourage the practice, limiting ways that universities can otherwise seek to attract men (such as through athletics programs) and by creating a quota regime that kicks in only after the admission process.

Indeed, the entire concept of pro-male affirmative action undermines the feminist cause. Admitting that women so dominate academia that men need special rules to compete exposes as absurd the feminists' continued push for funding for girl-power programs (such as those related to math and science) and their continued fixation on the exact number of female college athletes. Feminists also have long championed affirmative action programs for other underrepresented groups, which would make outrage about using different standards for men a stretch.

Traditional opponents of affirmative action policies, on the other hand, tend to be concerned about the declining academic achievement of men. As a result, they may also be happy to ignore the inherent unfairness of this pro-male admissions process.

Yet surely this is a phenomenon that deserves a public airing, both to clarify what constitutes "fair" admission procedures and to consider the state of our education system more broadly.

Much hasbeen written about how affirmative action programs tend to backfire on intended beneficiaries.

There is every reason to expect that this will affect male affirmative-action beneficiaries just as it does any other group. Yet Americans can also sympathize with a college's desire to have a more diverse population than achievement-only admission criteria would generate.

Ideally, colleges should be free to set policies as they see fit, and be rewarded or punished in a marketplace that takes into account a wide variety of factors, from prestige to quality of campus life to actual transmission of knowledge and skills. Concerns about taxpayer support being distributed through a process that considers attributes like race and sex (rather than affording true equal treatment) seems a good reason to get government out of the business of funding colleges, rather than limit how colleges make their selections.

Young men's inability to compete on a level playing field with women should also invite consideration of other policy reforms. To start, let's recognize that government programs predicated on the idea of women as "short-changed" by the education system have long since been overtaken by reality. Our government's obsessive interest in enforcing a de facto quota system in the name of Title IX -- but only in areas where men still outnumber women, like sports and math and science programs -- is entirely inappropriate.

Education reformers should consider why our K-12 education system fails to help so many boys reach their potential. Just as fixing the pipeline is ultimately the best path to boost minority education achievement, so it is with our nation's boys. Parents should consider whether traditional one-size-fits-all public schools are really best for their sons. Our education system should be restructured so that there are more options, including paradigms better-suited to serve boys' specific academic needs.

Many may prefer to ignore pro-male affirmative action policies, but they are a symptom of larger issues that will continue to hurt American society.