Male Call

Enrollment Trends Widen Gender Gap, Upset Social Scene

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  11/05/2000

There were more men on the dance floor than usual. But not enough.

As Sheila Erimez slipped on her high heels, the beat of salsa beckoning her, she watched as some women in Boston University's ballroom dance club reluctantly decided to dance the sensuous samba with one another. Others resorted to taking turns with the available men.

"There just aren't enough guys to go around," said Erimez, a slender blond junior majoring in English. "They're dropping off like flies. Wherever you go on campus, there are more girls than guys."

The 20-year-old and her friends were griping about an increasingly depressing fact of life for many women at colleges throughout the country: Today less than 45 percent of US undergraduates are men, down from 55 percent in 1970, according to national surveys. Utah is now the only state with more men than women in college. Last year, women accounted for 56 percent of all students at colleges in Massachusetts.

The gender gap is particularly pronounced at Boston University, where women now account for 61 percent of the total undergraduate student body. Women dominate classes and student government. Theater troupes are desperate for male actors, and men are so scarce that women often outnumber them at that once all-male bastion, the gym.

The increasing dominance of female students in American higher education is particularly striking because they represent just 49 percent of the population between ages 18 and 24.
To explain the trend, some argue that boys have fewer role models and are falling behind as girls are given more attention in school. Others believe that the changing ratio is more a reflection of greater numbers of older women returning to college.

At BU, the theories include the school's abandonment of its varsity football and baseball teams, the university marketing itself as a "safe, urban school," and the popularity of its many study-abroad programs with women.

"We really don't know why this is happening," said Kelly Walter, director of admissions at BU. "It concerns us in that ideally it should be 50 percent men and 50 percent women. But we're not planning on making it easier for men to get in. That would be illegal. We're most concerned with enrolling those students who are most academically qualified."

Whatever the cause, women have been extending their majority over men at BU since the late 1980s. This year, women account for 62 percent of the freshman class, and school officials expect the gap may widen over the next few years.

The disparity is even greater at some of the university's undergraduate schools. In the College of Arts and Sciences, BU's largest school, 67 percent of freshmen are women; in the College of Communication, 69 percent of freshmen are women, and in Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, 83 percent of freshmen are women.

The imbalance has long piqued women at BU, but, each fall, freshman women who expected a more balanced social scene are particularly bitter.

"It pains me; it's very hard to meet guys," said Amy Horowitz, 18, a freshman, while dining in a female-dominated dinner crowd at the university's student union. "If I knew this before coming here, it definitely would have factored into my decision. I guess I feel a little gypped."

A recent study by the American Council on Education suggests that talk of a male crisis in higher education is overblown. Men still predominate in doctoral, professional, and master's programs such as business and engineering. They also continue to maintain a majority, if slimmer than ever before, at top schools such as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

One of the main reasons for the uptick, the report says, is that more minority women than men are going to college.

"We can't get distracted by talk of broad problems," said Jacqueline King, the report's author and director of ACE's Center for Policy Analysis. "We do have pockets of real concern. The gaps are biggest between the racial gaps. For African-American men, for example, it's not cool to look smart, and so many have little interest in college."

Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Center of the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, disagrees.

While he acknowledges concern over minorities, he said he believes there's a larger problem for all men - and that it's only getting worse. His evidence: 54 percent of all bachelor's degrees went to white men in 1977; 20 years later, men are getting less than 45 percent. By the end of this decade, he believes, the number will drop to 40 percent.

"What this reflects is that schools and family circumstances are not helping boys enough," he said. "The problem is, boys don't have enough adult male role models, and that our increasingly urbanized world caters less to men than it used to."

The problem of declining male enrollments has even sparked talk of affirmative action for men. At a recent meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the issue was front and center. At one panel meeting, academics explored the topic "Are Our Boys at Risk?" while another session was called "Where Have All the Men Gone?"

Although male affirmative action is still little more than a hypothetical for academics to mull at conferences, it's a concept some students at BU find appealing.

It's not rare there for large introductory classes in psychology or political science to be two-thirds women. Men are outnumbered by nearly 2 to 1 on the main student governing body, the executive board, and both the president and vice president are women. And to fill the gap on the social scene, parties often include students from other schools.

Of course, not everyone considers the unequal ratio a problem. On a recent night at the Sargent gym, Chris Szczerban was sweating on a stationary bicycle, the only guy in a room filled with women trudging along on other exercise equipment.

"I went to an all-guys high school," the 19-year-old sophomore said. "I would say this is definitely a good thing."

And while straight women may complain, the lesbian culture is thriving, said Emily Lyman, 20, a junior who is president of Spectrum, BU's gay and lesbian group. "It's not hard for a lesbian to get a date here," she said.

Many professors also see the influx of women as a benefit. For Richard Ely, who teaches Introduction to Psychology, a large class where it is easy to count the men, women play "a civilizing role."

"There is certainly far less of a macho, testosterone atmosphere," he said. "For teaching, it's particularly good and allows you to try new things and raise controversial views. I might feel less comfortable doing that in a class 75 percent men."

The lack of machismo has other perks, too. According to Herb Ross, BU's associate dean of students, the incidence of violence and other disturbances in student dorms has decreased as the ratio of women has increased.

Still, for most, the problems of the gender gap outweigh the benefits.

For instance, film major Pierluigi Cothran last week posted fliers in the theater school, desperately beseeching: "Male Actor Needed for Student Film." As much as the 20-year-old junior has looked, he hasn't had any luck.

"No one has responded at all," he said. "It's just really hard to find guys at this school."

As the salsa music throbbed earlier this week below the student union, Erimez and a group of other well-dressed women watched forlornly as more women filed into the dance hall. 

One told a story of having to compete with another woman in a ballroom dancing competition last year. Another complained about how many of the men on campus are homosexuals, or jocks uninterested in dancing with women.

"I just wish I had a partner," she said. "I don't want to look ridiculous dancing with another woman again."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe