An Admission to Women

Our school clearly discriminates against one major demography in admission to Swarthmore. “Which demography?” you cry out. “Which minority has received the harsh penalty of a world still rife with bigotry and prejudice, the insidious influence of which pervades even the safe haven of Swarthmore?”

My readers may be surprised that the group of people which face a disadvantage in their applications to Swarthmore are not actually a minority, neither in their percent of applications to Swarthmore, nor in the US population, nor in the world population. Nevertheless, the effects of discrimination is not new to them. They are women.

Consider our recent history as reported by Swarthmore’s Common Data Set. While in the past four years 56% to 60% of applicants to Swarthmore are women, those the school admitted included only 51-52% women. Once given an admittance, women are slightly more likely to accept and enroll, which brings the percent of men and women at Swarthmore fairly consistently to 52% women and 48% men. These results were confirmed by Jim Bock, Dean of Admissions (personal communication, 02/14/09).

Over the past four years, this pattern has gotten worse: following a national trend of college applications, the percent of women applying to Swarthmore has constantly increased relative to men, while our admittance of them remains constant. In the interests of maintaining a student gender balance of close to 50-50, the school is culling out women applicants. Put another way, men get affirmative action at Swarthmore.

Now, I’m not sure where I stand on affirmative action, as for every person it benefits, someone else is harmed. Affirmative action based on guilt is shameful behavior, demeaning to all parties involved. For instance, claiming we must admit African-American students because many white Americans – and some free black Americans — once held slaves, reduces the purpose of college admission to a false exculpation of crimes committed on long-dead people by long-dead people.

Affirmative action based on current inequalities, however, certainly bears discussion. For instance, many argue that since many minorities are disenfranchised even today in our own society, affirmative action could be an appropriate way for private schools to use their wealth and power for good in society. By taking into consideration the societal and educational advantage that some have and handicapping them (or, to take a positive spin on it, giving a boost to those with a disadvantage), colleges can begin to smooth out the rumpled fabric of our society and provide a more equal access to higher education.

To accomplish still different goals, affirmative action is sometimes carried out to create a rich and diverse student body. In our current academic environment learning is bound to the students because faculty generally either have no belief system or are unwilling to impose it in a misguided attempt not to stifle students’ learning. Thus the folks to the left and right of you (speaking metaphorically here, not politically) are the ones who are going to be influencing your way of thinking, not the fellow or lady at the front.

To be fair, there is a lot of truth to this, even if you may disagree with the pedagogical power of the professor in the classroom. Your professor doesn’t have dinner with you after class, doesn’t go to your parties, doesn’t swing by your room at midnight to pour his heart’s concerns out to you. Your classmates do. They are like colleagues and friends and lovers and siblings all rolled into one. Fellow students have impact, and I can understand the desire to create a rich student body out of more than just rich students. After all, the type of students here is a major reason people attend Swarthmore, right after its academic reputation. I have benefited immensely from my eclectic peers – though, when we are really honest with ourselves, we have to admit that Swarthmore students all share a huge amount in common which tends to cross boundaries of gender, skin color, or class background.

We would do more for increasing diversity if we stopped admitting the self-selectors into Swarthmore through eliminating Early Decision and targeted for recruitment and admission students who don’t thrive on feeling busy, who don’t have a fantasy love affair with President Obama, and who own cars (to take the first three examples of things which seem to typify Swarthmore students). But that would make our school a very different and possibly quite frighteningly normal place. Even this author only fits one of those criteria. But I digress.

Affirmative action of this type bears reconsideration – since one weird side effect of all this affirmative action is that fewer equally qualified women are getting in than men. This is particularly odd, since women are ideal students when contrasted with men: college women study more, earn better grades, are more likely to graduate, and are less likely to commit infractions. Even if men were equally qualified, is sacrificing women worth having a gender-balanced college?

In China many people are worried about the birth rate disparity that has been going on since the one-child policy became instituted. Currently about 100 girls are born for every 108 men. When you fast-forward twenty years, you have the problem today, in which there is still this gender disparity. This results in millions of unmarried and presumably sexually frustrated young Chinese men (though another survey indicating that nearly two thirds of Chinese men have visited a prostitute may indicate they are less sexually frustrated than we previously thought; nevertheless, regardless of one’s views on prostitution, it is not a long-term solution).

The same could happen at Swarthmore! Our penchant for and the devoted reading of the sex columns (not to mention the piercing insights into the social-sexual lives of Swatties penned by Adam Dalva and Fletcher Wortman in semesters past) indicate that even now Swarthmore may have sexual problems without adding the destabilizing factor in China of a gender imbalance. Throw in the fact that there are no convenient houses of pleasure, and by restricting the admittance of women, we may be creating a powder-keg of sexually and academically frustrated young men.

Making the assumption that we are not for some unfathomable reason getting swathes of unqualified female applicants (though women consistently scored about 60 points lower than men on the old SAT, performance in college is still better), I am in favor of admitting the genders in equal proportions to their applications. That’s not just because I believe in the power of statistics and the law of large numbers (increased numbers of women on campus would increase my chances of getting a date!), but also because we are unjustly handicapping women in order to create a gender balance in higher education is accepting a great moral cost to achieve a fairly shallow goal.

Admitting women and men in equal proportions to their applications would result in a significant enough imbalance to cause harm, and thus the current discrimination against women applicants is unjustified and even wrong. Swarthmore has long been proud of our coeducational status since our very foundation. Perhaps now we should stop living in a Orwellian socialist utopia in which all genders are equal, but some are more equal than others.


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