Vassar Admissions exhibits gender bias against women

Pictured above is the Kautz Admission House on the Vassar campus. Vassar College's admission numbers have recently come under scrutiny for having a lower acceptance rate for women than men. Courtesy of Collin Knopp-Schwyn via Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago, Vassar sent out decisions to the Class of 2023, and in response, Instagram posts with the hashtag #Vassar2023 have started to trickle in as accepted students celebrate their admissions. At the same time, rejected high school seniors who had their sights set on Vassar may be reviewing their credentials and wondering why they weren’t accepted. Was it the number of extracurriculars? Was it their GPA? Schools rarely release the reasons why they choose to accept or reject an applicant, but a recent analysis of data has led me to believe that admissions may have a gender bias.

Although Vassar first opened in 1861 as an all-women’s college, the school continues to maintain that reputation even after going co-ed in 1969. When I mention Vassar in conversation outside of campus, people often ask whether Vassar is still an all-women’s school. As such, it is not surprising that far more women apply to Vassar each year than men. But despite the fact that more women apply and the fact that Vassar’s history is built around the advancement of women, men are accepted to Vassar at a significantly higher rate than women.

For example, for this year’s Class of 2022, 2,511 men and 5,801 women applied. However, of those applicants, 828 men and 1,215 women were admitted. This means that for the current first-year class—when considering gender alone—men were admitted to Vassar at a rate of 33.0 percent, while women were admitted at rate of only 20.9 percent (Vassar, “Common Data Set 2018/19”). For the Class of 2020, the gap is even wider: 1,169 out of 2,112 men were admitted, while only 795 out of 5,172 women were let in. In other words, the acceptance rate for men that year was 55.3 percent, while the acceptance rate for women was 15.4 percent (Vassar, “Common Data Set 2016/17”).

Percentage of Vassar applicants offered admissions, by gender, over the past 22 years, as documented by the 2017/2018 Vassar Factbook.

When looking at these numbers, it appears that there is a gender bias in favor of men. Of course, there is the possibility that every year, somehow, the men who apply to Vassar are more “qualified” than the women who apply. However, clear patterns in the data show otherwise. According to an article published in Nature, girls on average have higher grades than boys by 6.3 percent overall (Nature, “Gender differences in individual variation in academic grades fail to fit expected patterns for STEM,” 09.28.2018). In terms of standardized testing, Vassar women also outperformed Vassar men. According to statistical data collected from the Class of 2012 to the Class of 2021, women scored 13.1 points higher than men on average on their combined SAT score. For the Class of 2021, on which Vassar has most recently reported, the average SAT score difference was 70 points, yielding a three percent gap. However, Vassar doesn’t just consider test scores and grades. The personal statement is equally crucial. Perhaps men write better essays than women? But again, the data shows otherwise. Looking specifically at the SAT writing scores broken down by gender at Vassar over the past 10 years, women on average scored 18.6 points higher than men. For the Class of 2021, women scored on average 27 points higher than men, or four percent more (Vassar, “The Vassar College Factbook,” 11.2017).

If women have higher grades than men, perform better on their SATs and write as effectively as their writing scores suggest, women should be admitted at a higher rate than men. Given the sheer volume of women who apply, they should constitute a larger percentage of the students accepted. It is highly improbable that Vassar’s male applicants are such standouts that they should warrant receiving admission at a consistently higher rate than female applicants over the past several years.

I suspect that this discrepancy is designed to keep the gender makeup of Vassar “balanced.” Over the years, Vassar has maintained a male-to-female ratio of roughly 40:60, and this is due to the fact that fewer men choose to enroll compared to women. According to the Common Data Set for the Class of 2022, only 281 out of 828 men accepted their Vassar offer compared to 404 out of 1,215 women (Vassar, “Common Data Set 2018/19”). In contrast, our peer institutions that also have more female applicants than male applicants do not have the same gap in admission rates that we do. For example, analyzing the most recently reported data, the gap between the acceptance rates for men and women at Bowdoin College is only 1.2 percentage points, where 433 out of 3,741 men and 499 out of 5,340 women were admitted (Bowdoin, “Common Data Set 2018/19”). Williams College has a gap of 0.2 percentage points with 577 out of 4,488 men and 663 out of 5,072 women admitted (Williams, “Common Data Set 2018 – 2019”). At Amherst College, the gap is less than 0.1 percentage points, where 592 out of 4342 men and 654 out of 5,382 women were admitted (Amherst, “Common Data Set 2018/19”). In comparison, the gender gap in acceptance rates for the Vassar Class of 2022 is 12.1 percentage points.

While the College may argue that keeping the gender ratio balanced promotes diversity, this mindset toward admissions can create a bias against women. Even worse, we don’t know exactly how this bias manifests, because it occurs behind closed doors. Whether there is an unspoken cap on the number of women admitted or a subconscious inclination toward favoring male students over female students when it comes down to the last few spots, no one but the Office of Admissions at Vassar knows. Additionally, Vassar does not report the admissions statistics for non-binary/trans applications, so any other kinds of gender bias that occur remains unreported.

The Vassar Admissions’ website is also not transparent about their desire to keep the gender ratio balanced. In a section labeled “Selection Criteria,” they write, “Admission to Vassar is highly selective. Although we weigh a number of factors in the admission decision, the most important is academic ability, as demonstrated by performance in high school” (Vassar, “Apply”). This statement implies that admission is based primarily on merit, dodging any mention of maintaining a balance of gender.

Applicants pay a nonrefundable $65 to apply to Vassar, take a painstaking amount of time to write their essays, prepare thoroughly for their standardized tests and submit multiple necessary components for their applications. If gender is indeed a factor in their decisions, these students have the right to know, and they have the right to know before they apply. Admissions should revise their statement to make prospective students aware that they may be surrendering their spot to a male applicant—all in the name of gender balance.

Additionally, if Vassar has no legal obligation to uphold an equal amount of men and women, changing the gender makeup be largely female would provide several benefits. With the current admissions trend, women must hit higher benchmarks than men in order to gain acceptance, as proven by their test scores. Eliminating the tendency toward keeping a gender ratio balanced would eliminate this hurdle for women. Even if this causes the gender ratio to shift toward a larger female majority, it’s truly not the end of the world if Vassar is 80 percent women and 20 percent male. Most career fields are male-dominated, so if men start to feel outnumbered by women at Vassar, they can rest assured that they won’t be outnumbered anywhere else.

Given that our peer institutions do not report large gaps in their acceptance rates by genders, Vassar should strive to follow their example. In the wake of the college admissions scandals, it’s time for Vassar to overhaul their admissions processes. Vassar was originally created to prioritize women and their educations, and we should do everything we can to honor that historical commitment.

[Correction (Friday, Apr. 12): The statement that nearly 70 percent of admitted students for the Class of 2022 were men, despite only making up 30 percent of applicants, was found to be the result of a miscalculation of the original data. This statement has been removed from the article and replaced with the fact that male applicants have been granted admission at a consistently higher rate than their female counterparts over the past several years.”]

6 Comments

  1. This is easily the dumbest argument that has been published by the Misc. Could you imagine how miserable girls would be if there were only 20% men on this campus? Who would ever want that? If you want a women’s college, go to one. Vassar has been coed for 50 years!!!! There’s nothing wrong with being half men and half women.

    • Indeed there is nothing wrong with having a balanced gender ratio but I believe that that completely misses the point of the article. As the author very insightfully mentions, this is about structural biases against high-achieving women who may potentially be more qualified than their fellow male applicants but are still rejected due to institutional interests. A balanced gender ratio should be achieved through having equally qualified applicants of both/all genders apply at similar rates, rather than being superficially maintained by lowering thresholds for male applicants.

  2. I think this is an important discussion to have. For all the hand wringing over will men still apply if the school is 70/30 f/m or even 80/20 f/m, I think you’d still get men applying. I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to change the “stigma” that exists for certain applicants applying to one of the few ex-women’s colleges that went coed, and the only example of the Seven Sisters. The academic caliber of women on campus is pretty clearly higher from my experience, which I in large part attribute to affirmative action for men (a group that absolutely does not need affirmative action). If Vassar really wants a gender balanced school, don’t do it at the end-stage, they should find ways to get more men to apply, because looking at the huge gap between Vassar and its peers among male applicants that’s clearly where the issue is. That said, there’s nothing wrong with 70/30 or 80/20 gender breakdown, I think the admissions office is just concerned even fewer men will apply.

  3. The problem doesn’t lie in the proposed bias toward high-achieving female applicants – it’s the structural fault of this former women’s college. Specifically, we were the only Seven Sister without a nearby male student population (our girls had to bus themselves up to Yale every weekend back then). We went coed exactly because Vassar needed to address this issue of not having enough men on campus after the number of applicants decreased gradually in the 50s and 60s.

  4. I have a feeling that the “Mary” commenter is a salty boy… But I don’t blame him for making his little comment. After all, he could be as much as 4 times (55.3/15.4 = 3.6) less qualified to be at Vassar than any woman on campus ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  5. Just wanted to point out that the smoking gun statistic here that’s missing is the statistics of men and women in the applicant pool, as opposed to those of the admitted students.

    It’s possible that the women who are applying to Vassar have a wider distribution of test scores (because it’s a well known Seven Sisters college drawing applicants from women as both a target and a reach school due to Vassar’s history) and that most of the men who apply are a self-selecting with high test scores (with men with lower test scores not applying to Vassar as a dream school). I would not be shocked if this were one of the reasons why the acceptance rate for men is much higher than for women, and would frankly not change much about our current admissions process if this actually was the overarching reason.

    Still, Occam’s Razor: if it looks bad… it probably is bad. I’m not going to play devil’s advocate any further using facts that aren’t released and might not even exist. Vassar needs to release clear explanation of why the admissions rates of female students is lower than male admit rates or overhaul the way it chooses its classes. If not you will probably see me selling pitchforks in Main to raise funds for the clubs I’m involved with. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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