First-Year Women at the Nation’s Leading Research Universities

For the sixth year in a row, WIAReport has surveyed the nation’s highest-ranking research universities to determine the percentage of women in this year’s entering classes. We also report on gender differences in acceptance rates at these schools and whether women have made gains in enrollments at these universities compared to where they were a year ago.

Of the 25 high-ranking universities that responded to our survey, women were a majority of the entering students at 18 schools. A year ago, women were a majority of the first-year students at only 11 high-ranking universities. Two years ago, women were a majority of the first-year students at 13 high-ranking research universities.

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There are wide variations in the percentage of women in the first-year classes at these highly rated universities. For the sixth year in a row, the highest percentage of women in the entering class among this large group of leading research universities is found at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. There are 2,539 women among the 4,228 entering students at UNC this fall. Thus, women make up more than 60.1 percent of all first-year students, up from 59 percent a year ago.

For the second consecutive year and fourth time in the last five years, Emory University in Atlanta has the second-highest percentage of women in its entering class among this group of leading research universities. This year, women make up 57.7 percent of the entering class. The University of Virginia is in third place, the same position it held last year. Women are 53.8 percent of the first-year class at the University of Virginia, down from 54.4 percent a year ago. At Cornell University, Washington University, Brown University, and Wake Forest University, women make up more than 52 percent of the entering students.

At the other extreme, the California Institute of technology has an entering class where women are 44.1 percent of all first-year students. This is the lowest percentage among high-ranking universities that responded to our survey. A year ago, women made up 46.1 percent of the entering students. There has been progress at CalTech. Three years ago, women made up only 35 percent of the entering class.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology women are 46.3 percent of the first-year class. This is the second lowest percentage among the major high-ranking research universities. It is hardly surprising that these universities have the lowest percentage of women in their entering classes considering that these schools have large numbers of students in engineering and other STEM disciplines where historically women have been vastly underrepresented.

A year ago, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh had an entering class where women make up 45.9 percent of all first-year students. This was the lowest percentage in our survey last year. Like MIT and CalTech, Carnegie Mellon too, has a large number of students in engineering and STEM disciplines. But this year, there are six high-ranking universities with lower percentages of women in their entering classes than Carnegie Mellon, including Yale, Princeton, and Harvard.

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We can compare last year’s results to the current data to see where women are making progress. Of the 24 leading research universities for which we have data in both years, 19 schools show an increase in the number of women first-year students and only five show a decline. It must be noted that an increase in the number of women in the first-year class may not reflect a fluctuation in the gender ratio but may simply result from more students overall in the first-year class.

Last year, the number of women in the entering class at the California Institute of Technology was up 23.3 percent from the previous year, the largest increase in our survey. But this year the largest percentage decrease of 6.3 percent occurs at CalTech. Yet, as stated earlier, the overall recent trend in women enrollments at CalTech is up.

Rice University in Houston, Texas, Columbia University in New York City, and Carnegie Mellon University all showed an increase of more than 7 percent for women in their entering classes. The University of Chicago and Vanderbilt University each had an increase of more than 6 percent.

Other than Caltech, the only major research university showing a drop of more than 2 percent was Harvard University. There are 795 women in this year’s entering class at Harvard. Last year there were 815.

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. It must be noted that 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 do note that many high-ranking universities are reluctant to report gender differences in acceptance rates, and this aversion to reporting gender differences in acceptance rates appears to be increasing. Last year 17 leading research universities provided data on gender differences. This year, only 15 chose to do so. We will simply present the data and let readers make their own conclusions.

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Of the 15 highly rated research universities that supplied data, we find that women were accepted at a higher rate than men at seven institutions. Men were accepted at a higher rate than women at eight institutions. Most of the differences are very small and should not be considered significant

The greatest difference was at Carnegie Mellon University, which as stated is heavily focused on STEM disciplines. At this highly rated university, 29.9 percent of women were accepted for admission compared to only 16.6 percent of male applicants. Thus, there was a very large acceptance rate gap in favor of women of 13.3 percentage points. The gender gap increased from 12.5 percentage points last year to 13.3 percentage points this year.

The next highest acceptance rate gap in favor of women was 4 percentage points at Cornell University. The only other leading research university where the accepted rate for women was two percentage points higher than the rate for men was the University of Virginia.

At the other end of the spectrum, Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, had the highest gender gap in acceptance rates in favor of men. At Wake Forest, 34.8 percent of male applicants were accepted compared to 27.2 percent of women applicants. The gender gap in favor of men grew from 5.2 percentage points last year to 7.6 percentage points this year.

Vanderbilt University in Nashville was the only other high-ranking research university where men were accepted at a rate at least two percentage points higher than women.

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