First-Year Women at the Nation’s Leading Liberal Arts Colleges

For the second year in a row, WIAReport has surveyed the nation’s highest-ranking co-educational liberals arts colleges to determine the percentage of women in this year’s entering classes. This year, for the first time, we also report on gender differences in acceptance rates at these schools and whether women have made gains in enrollments at these colleges compared to where they were a year ago.

We note here that several of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges are educational institutions for women. These include Smith College, Bryn Mawr College, Wellesley College, Scripps College, and Mount Holyoke College. Because only women are admitted and enroll at these highly regarded colleges, they were not included in this survey which focuses on gender differences in enrollments and acceptance rates.

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Of the 21 high-ranking liberal arts colleges that responded to our survey, women were a majority of the entering students at 17 schools while there were more men than women in the entering classes at only four liberal arts schools. Last year, there were seven leading liberal arts colleges where men outnumbered women.

There are wide variations in the percentage of women in the first-year classes at these highly rated liberal arts institutions. Last year, Oberlin College in Ohio had the highest percentage of women in its first-year class. This year, Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, had the highest percentage of women in its entering class. There are 506 women in Bucknell’s entering class of 919 students. Thus, women make up 55.5 percent of the first-year class. Vassar College, one of the original Seven Sister colleges, had the second highest percentage of women in its entering class at 55.3 percent. Vassar, which switched to co-education in 1970, also had the second highest percentage of women in last year’s survey. This year, Oberlin had the third highest percentage of women in its entering class. Women make up 55.1 percent of this year’s entering students. Colgate University ranked in the fourth spot with women making up 54.9 of the entering class. Women make up at least 53 percent of the entering classes at Bates College, Grinnell College, Wesleyan University, and Williams College.

At the other extreme, women make up only 44.3 percent of the entering students at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. That is the lowest percentage of women at any of the nation’s leading liberal arts college. Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, and Claremont McKenna College in California had the second and third lowest levels of women in their first-year classes. Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, is the only highly rated liberal arts college where women are a minority in the entering class. This school is heavily oriented toward STEM disciplines where women have traditionally been underrepresented. Last year, Harvey Mudd College had the lowest percentage of women in its entering class of all the high-ranked liberal arts colleges.

Since this is the second year of the WIAReport survey, we can compare last year’s results to the current data. There are more leading liberal arts colleges that showed a drop in women first-year students than those that posted a gain.

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We find that the number of women in the entering class at Harvey Mudd College is up 14.6 percent from a year ago. Bucknell University has 29 more women in its entering class this year than it did a year ago. This represents an increase of 6.1 percent. Davidson College and Williams College both posted increases in women first-year students of more than 3 percent.

In contrast, the number of entering women students at Haverford College is down almost 9 percent from a year ago. Amherst College and Swarthmore College also showed drops of more than 5 percent in first-year women students.

It is well known that nationwide women outpace men in college enrollments, graduation rates, and degrees earned. Because of a large and growing gender gap in enrollments at many colleges and universities, it has become easier for men to gain admission to some colleges and universities. Now, just because men have a higher acceptance rate than women at a given institution does not necessarily mean that men have received an unfair admissions advantage. A particular college or university may simply have had an outstanding pool of male applicants in a given year.

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We will simply present the data and let readers make their own conclusions. Of the 21 highly rated liberal arts colleges that supplied data, we find that women were accepted at a higher rate than men at only five institutions. The greatest difference was at Harvey Mudd College, which as stated is heavily focused on STEM disciplines. At this highly rated college, 34.2 percent of women were accepted for admission compared to only 11.8 percent of male applicants. Thus, there was a very large acceptance rate gap in favor of women of 22.4 percentage points.

The next highest acceptance rate gap was 5.8 percentage points at Lafayette College. Lafayette, which did not accept women until 1971, has a large contingent of engineering students, a field where women are traditionally not well represented. The only other leading liberal arts institutions where women were accepted at a higher rate than men were Bucknell University, Colgate University, and Trinity College.

Vassar College, which as stated was once a women’s college, has an acceptance rate for men that is significantly higher than the rate for women. In 2012, Vassar accepted 32.7 percent of male applicants but only 18.3 percent of women applicants. This is, by a large margin, the largest acceptance rate gap in favor of men. Pomona College, Middlebury College, and Davidson College were the only other leading liberal arts colleges where the acceptance rate for men was more than 4 percentage points higher than the acceptance rate for women.

WIAReport invites readers to comment on these statistics. Do you think women applicants are receiving an unfair disadvantage in admissions decisions at these colleges so that there is a greater gender balance in enrollments on these campuses? If this is so, do you agree with the strategy or should these college admit applicants without regard to gender, even it mean there will be far more women on these campuses than men?

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