Why are Women Underrepresented in Elite Colleges and Universities? A Non-Linear Decomposition Analysis

Abstract

The emerging female advantage in education has received considerable attention in the popular media and recent research. We examine a persistent exception to this trend: women’s underrepresentation in America’s most competitive colleges and universities. Using nationally generalizable data spanning four decades, we evaluate evidence for three possible explanations. First, we analyze whether men’s academic profiles more closely match the admissions preferences of elite institutions. Next, we consider organizational preferences for male applicants. Finally, we test whether women self-select out of elite institutions through their application choices. Using Blinder–Oaxaca non-linear decomposition techniques and multinomial logistic regression, we find that men’s advantage in standardized test scores best explains the enrollment gap. Our analyses thus suggest that the gender enrollment gap in elite colleges and universities is a matter of access, not student choice. We discuss the implications of these results for educational equity and college admissions.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Findings from engineering show that academic success within educational and work climates that women perceive as accepting can compensate for technical insecurities that women may feel (McIlwee and Robinson 1992). Strengthened self-efficacy can interrupt the cycle that leads to diminished interest in fields where women are already underrepresented.

  2. 2.

    In our analyses, 100 paired samples were used to produce each set of fairlie decomposition estimates.

  3. 3.

    Because high school GPA and course enrollment data were not included in the NLS data, those variables are not included in the full model for that cohort.

  4. 4.

    All other variables are held constant for the estimation of each of these coefficients; therefore, the estimated contributions to the gap may be larger than the gap itself.

  5. 5.

    Such “reductions” can however be deceiving, as the overall gender gap still advantages males in the end. Therefore, we can interpret these reductions as a constraint on the actual gender gap, which would be about 6.8 % had women not participated in honors societies at a higher rate than males.

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Acknowledgments

We acknowledge that this coding of race ignores heterogeneity within racial and ethnic groups, but it was necessary to maintain this NCES coding scheme to ensure continuity across all four cohorts in our data.

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Correspondence to Rob Bielby.

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Bielby, R., Posselt, J.R., Jaquette, O. et al. Why are Women Underrepresented in Elite Colleges and Universities? A Non-Linear Decomposition Analysis. Res High Educ 55, 735–760 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11162-014-9334-y

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Keywords

  • Enrollment
  • Gender
  • Non-linear decomposition
  • Longitudinal data
  • Stratification
  • Elite institutions