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”).
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.”]