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

2013-annual-survey-badgeFor the third 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 second 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 22 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 five liberal arts schools. Two years ago, 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. Two years ago, Oberlin College in Ohio had the highest percentage of women in its first-year class. Last year, Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, had the highest percentage of women in its entering class. This year women make up the largest percentage of the entering class at Macalester College among the liberal arts colleges that responded to our survey. Women make up 59.3 percent of the entering students at Macalester this year.

Oberlin College, Colgate University, Grinnell College and Vassar College all have entering classes that are at least 57 percent women.

At the other extreme, women make up only 46.1 percent of the entering students at Bates College in Maine. That is the lowest percentage of women at any of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges. Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, has the second lowest percentage of women in its entering class at 47.2 percent. This prestigious school is heavily oriented toward STEM disciplines where women have traditionally been underrepresented. The only other three high-ranking liberal arts colleges where men are a majority of the entering class are Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, and Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.

Last year there were more leading liberal arts colleges that showed a drop in women first-year students than those that posted a gain. This year the opposite is true. For the 21 schools for which we have data for each year, 15 show an increase in women in their entering classes. Only six show a decline.

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Claremont McKenna College led the group with a large 26.5 percent increase in the number of first-year women students. At Trinity College, Bowdoin College, and Harvey Mudd College, there has been an increase of at least 8 percent in the number of women in the entering class.

In contrast, the number of entering women students at Bates College is down almost 15 percent from a year ago. Middlebury College has nearly 12 percent fewer women in its first-year class than was the case a year ago. Other top liberal arts colleges that show a decline in women first-year students were Williams College, Bucknell University, Washington and Lee University, and Amherst College.

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.

We will simply present the data and let readers make their own conclusions. In most cases, differences in acceptance rates were small. Of the 20 highly rated liberal arts colleges that supplied data, we find that women were accepted at a higher rate than men at only seven institutions. This is up from five a year ago.

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The greatest difference was at Harvey Mudd College, which as stated is heavily focused on STEM disciplines. At this highly rated college, 31.7 percent of women were accepted for admission compared to only 12.5 percent of male applicants. Thus, there was a very large acceptance rate gap in favor of women of 19.2 percentage points.

The next highest acceptance rate gap was at Bucknell University. There, women had an acceptance rate that was 5.4 percentage points higher than the acceptance rate for men. The only other high-ranking liberal arts college where women enjoyed a significant advantage in acceptance rates was 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.

Vassar College, which was once a women’s college, has an acceptance rate for men that is significantly higher than the rate for women. In 2013, Vassar accepted 33.9 percent of male applicants but only 19.7 percent of women applicants. This is, by a large margin, the largest acceptance rate gap in favor of men at the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges. Davidson College, Bates College, Pomona College, and Swarthmore 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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