By Jonathan Zimmerman
'Boys have it easy." So said my 17-year-old daughter, observing the annual college sweepstakes at her high school in Lower Merion. When letters and e-mails arrived from university admissions offices this month, most of her male friends got good news. But girls with stronger grades and test scores were rejected, making them think the game is rigged.
They're right. The biggest secret in higher education today is affirmative action for boys - mostly white boys. It's also the biggest scandal, providing extra help to the members of our society who need it least.
Back in 2007, a U.S. News and World Report investigation found that the college admission rate for men was 13 percent higher than for women. At some institutions, men get an even bigger boost than that. The College of William and Mary, for example, admitted 45 percent of its male applicants last year and only 27 percent of the females.
Why? Put simply, women are outpacing men at every stage of American education. They already make up 57 percent of undergraduates and 59 percent of graduate students. Unless colleges make "accommodations" for male applicants, the argument goes, many institutions would end up with student bodies that are 70 or 80 percent female.
And the colleges don't want that. Surveys have shown that both female and male students prefer gender balance. So if a university gets too "girlie," as the students like to say, the strongest applicants look elsewhere.
Maybe that's true. But it also sounds a lot like universities' notorious argument against taking in too many Jews back in the early 20th century. "The summer hotel that is ruined by admitting Jews meets its fate ... because they drive away the Gentiles," Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell warned, "and then after the Gentiles have left, they leave also."
Only after World War II would institutions like Harvard do away with their religious quotas, paving the way for a massive influx of Jewish students. Meanwhile, universities also began small and often secret affirmative action programs to recruit another set of students they had traditionally excluded: racial minorities.
We tend to associate affirmative action with the civil rights campaigns of the late 1960s and 1970s, when African Americans and Hispanics demanded greater representation in universities and other institutions. But as my New York University colleague Lisa Stulberg will show in a forthcoming book, universities began giving admission preferences to minorities in the early '60s.
Some university leaders argued that people who had suffered discrimination - especially blacks - needed special consideration to compensate for their historical disadvantages. Others said whites as well as minorities would benefit from diverse institutions, which would imbue a new generation of Americans with cross-cultural knowledge and understanding.
The diversity argument carried the day in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the 1978 Supreme Court decision that allowed universities to consider race as a factor in admissions. And it was reinforced in the 2003 University of Michigan affirmative action case, Grutter v. Bollinger, which emphasized the role of colleges in preparing young people for a multicultural society.
"In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in Grutter, "it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity."
The same goes for gender, of course. But men - currently a minority on American campuses - don't need universities to help them enter the leadership class. They already are the leadership class! From corporate boardrooms to the halls of Congress, men hold most of the positions of influence in American society. And now they're going to enjoy affirmative action, too?
Perhaps the whole drive for gender balance is really just a way to keep men on top. If colleges continued to admit mostly female students, we would expect more and more women to enter the corridors of power. Eventually they would be running the country. And few of us, male or female, are ready to accept that.
Many years from now, we'll look back on this moment and wonder how we could have given special advantages to the most advantaged Americans. But that day is a long way off. To quote James Brown, it's still a man's world. And boys have it easy.