Gender Imbalance in Higher Education: Insights for College Administrators and Researchers


University administrators often strive for racial, socioeconomic, and geographic diversity in their student populations. Today, administrators face a new demographic challenge as women increasingly outnumber men in applications, enrollments, and graduation rates. This article discusses the causes and potential consequences of the growing gender imbalance and the legality of admissions policies that attempt to restore balance by giving preference to males. Using multiple analytic approaches, we test whether a public institution with increasing female enrollments responded by giving preferences in admissions to males. We conclude with insights for administrators and researchers.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    For instance, the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Kenyon College in Ohio wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post entitled "To All the Girls I've Rejected," where she reported that her university sometimes admitted less-qualified male applicants (Britz 2006). The Vice President of Enrollment at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania also reported to a New York Times journalist that the college gives preference to males in admissions (Lewin 2006). One of the more colorful comments was delivered by the Dean of the College of William and Mary who, in defense of the admissions preference for males, stated “We are, after all, the College of William and Mary, not Mary and Mary” (Broaddus 2009).

  2. 2.

    See also Bowen and Bok (1998) and Epenshade and Chung (2005) for early studies of racial or ethnic preferences in college admissions.

  3. 3.

    In addition to Texas, California, Florida, and New York have percent plans, all of which differ in their criteria for admission and requirements.

  4. 4.

    The Texas Higher Education Opportunity Project is a multi-year study directed by Marta Tienda (Princeton University) and her collaborators to study the college planning and enrollment behavior of students in Texas. More information on the study and access to most of the administrative data used here can be found at

  5. 5.

    See Table 6 in Appendix for descriptive statistics on all variables overall and by gender.

  6. 6.

    Following Long and Tienda (2008), we combine students’ verbal and math scores on the SAT and ACT exams. For students who only took the ACT, we convert their scores to the SAT scale using a conversation table provided by the College Board (Dorans 2002).

  7. 7.

    According to H.B. 588 (, in addition to the student's academic record, Texas public universities can consider many other student attributes in the admissions process, such as family income and parental education; whether the applicant would be the first generation in the family to attend or graduate from college; and "any other consideration the institution considers necessary to accomplish the institution's stated mission."(Page 3). Correspondingly, each university collects and uses a different set of criteria to determine admissions. We are unable to observe and control for all determinants of admission; our regressions include all of the variables that were provided by our data source, with the exception of a few for which the majority of students were missing data.

  8. 8.

    The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s information on applications, acceptances and enrollments is available here−2A0D-87B58BE320C6B099.

  9. 9.

    As with Eq. (1), these models are estimated with cluster-robust standard errors. The small number of clusters in the analysis (in this analysis, the clusters are the 14 years of applicant data) often yields cluster-robust standard errors that are downwards biased (Bertrand et al. 2004; Donald and Lang 2007; Cameron et al. 2008). To determine the extent of the bias, we implement the wild cluster bootstrap-t procedure described in Cameron et al. (2008) using the year of admission as the cluster. There were no meaningful differences in statistical inference using the bootstap p-values and the cluster-robust p-values.

  10. 10.

    The triple difference is the difference in the two double-differences as follows: Post H.B. 588 difference—Pre H.B. 588 difference or (0.005–(−0.005), which approximately equals 0.009.

  11. 11.

    In 2009, the state legislature amended the percent plan in 2009 to allow UT-Austin to cap top ten admits at 75 % of the entering freshman class.

  12. 12.

    For instance, the College of Charleston, a public institution in South Carolina, where the female ratio is 2 to 1, launched a rugby team and new majors in business in an effort to attract males (Grasgreen 2010).

  13. 13.

    See for a description of the Obama Administration’s proposal.


  1. Anderson, N. (2014). The gender factor in college admissions: Do women or men have an edge? The Washington Post. Accessed March 1, 2015, from

  2. Angrist, J., Lang, D., & Oreopoulos, P. (2009). Incentives and services for college achievement: Evidence from a randomized trial. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 1(1), 136–163.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Baum, S., & Goodstein, E. (2005). Gender imbalance in college applications: Does it lead to a preference for men in the admissions process? Economics of Education Review, 24(6), 665–675.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Becker, G. S., Hubbard, W. H., & Murphy, K. M. (2010). Explaining the worldwide boom in higher education of women. Journal of Human Capital, 4(3), 203–241.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Bertrand, Marianne, Duflo, Esther, & Mullainathan, Sendhil. (2004). How much should we trust differences-in-differences estimates? Quarterly Journal of Economics, 119(1), 249–275.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Bowen, W. G., & Bok, D. (1998). The shape of the river: Long-term consequences of considering race in college and university admissions. NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Britz, J. D. (2006). To all the girls i’ve rejected. New York Times Op-Ed. Accessed April 7, 2014, from

  8. Broaddus, H. (2009). Gender and college admissions: William and mary dean talks back. The Washington Post. Accessed June 1, 2015, from

  9. Bronson, P. (2009). Do male students need affirmative action? Newsweek. Accessed June 1, 2015, from

  10. Cameron, A. C., Gelbach, J. B., & Miller, D. L. (2008). Bootstrap-based improvements for inference with clustered errors. Review of Economics and Statistics, 90(3), 414–427.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Card, D., & Krueger, A. B. (2005). Would the elimination of affirmative action affect highly qualified minority applicants? Evidence from California and Texas. Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 58(3), 416–434.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Cardenas, J. (2007). Where are the college guys? St. Petersburg Times (Florida), pp. 1B. Accessed April 7, 2014, from

  13. Clayton, M. (2001). Admissions officers walk a fine line in gender-balancing act. Christian Science Monitor. Accessed March 30, 2013.

  14. Cohen, D. S. (2005). Title IX: Beyond equal protection. Harvard Law Review, 28, 217–283.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Conger, D. (2015). High school grades, admissions policies, and the gender gap in college enrollment. Economics of Education Review, 46, 144–147.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Conger, D., & Long, M. (2010). Why are men falling behind? Explanations for the gender gap in college outcomes. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 627(1), 184–214.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Cortes, K. (2010). Do bans on affirmative action hurt minority students? evidence from the texas top 10% plan. Economics of Education Review, 29(6), 1110–1124.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Deming, D., Hastings, J. S., Kane, T. J., & Staiger, D. O. (2014). School choice, school quality, and postsecondary attainment. American Economic Review, 104(3), 991–1013.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Dickson, L. (2006a). The changing accessibility, affordability and quality of higher education in Texas. In Ronald Ehrenberg (Ed.), What’s happening to public higher education? (pp. 229–250). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Dickson, L. (2006b). Does ending affirmative action in college admissions lower the percent of minority students applying to college? Economics of Education Review, 25(1), 109–119.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Donald, S. G., & Lang, K. (2007). Inference with difference-in-differences and other panel data. Review of Economics and Statistics, 89(2), 221–233.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Dorans, N. J. (2002). The recentering of SAT scales and its effects on score distributions and score interpretations. The College Board, NY, Research Report No. 2002-11.

  23. Dynarski, S. (2008). Building the stock of college-educated labor. Journal of Human Resources, 43(3), 576–610.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Epenshade, T. J., & Chung, C. Y. (2005). The opportunity cost of admissions preferences at elite universities. Social Science Quarterly, 85(5), 1422–1446.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing. (2013). Test score optional list.

  26. Franzese, D. (2007). The gender curve: An analysis of colleges’ use of affirmative action policies to benefit male applicants. American University Law Review, 56(3), 729–750.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Ge, S. (2011). Women’s college decisions: How much does marriage matter? Journal of Labor Economics, 29(4), 773–818.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Gibbs, N. (2008) Affirmative action for boys. Time. Accessed April 7, 2014, from,9171,1727693,00.html.

  29. Goldin, C. (2014). A grand gender convergence: Its last chapter. American Economic Review, 104(4), 1091–1119.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Goldin, C., Katz, L. F., & Kuziemko, Ilyana. (2006). The homecoming of American college women: The reversal of the college gender gap. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20(4), 133–156.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Goodwin, L. (2013). As court prepares affirmative-action decision, Softer Standards for Men Go Unnoticed. Yahoo News. Accessed October 1, 2014, from

  32. Grasgreen, A. (2010). Worries over a 2-to-1 Ratio. Inside Higher Education. Accessed June 1, 2015, from

  33. Greisemer, N. (2011). Civil Rights Commission suspends investigation into admissions discrimination. Accessed April 15, 2014, from

  34. Howell, J. (2010). Assessing the impact of eliminating affirmative action bans in higher education. Journal of Labor Economics, 28(1), 113–166.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Jacob, B. A. (2002). Where the boys aren’t: Non-cognitive skills, returns to school and gender gap in higher education. Economics of Education Review, 21(6), 589–598.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Jaschik, S. (2005). Gender gap at flagships. Inside Higher Education. Accessed March 1, 2015, from

  37. Kane, T. J. (1998). Racial and ethnic preferences in college admissions. In C. Jencks & M. Philips (Eds.), The black white test score gap (pp. 431–456). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Kapsidelis, K. (2015). Sweet Briar College’s decision to close stuns students. Richmond Times-Dispatch. Accessed March 3, 2015, from

  39. Kowarski, I. (2010). Civil-Rights Commission May Not Name Colleges in Admissions Report. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Accessed April 15, 2010, from

  40. Lewin, T. (2006). At colleges, women are leaving men in the dust. The New York Times. Accessed April 25, 2014, from

  41. Long, M. (2007). Affirmative action and its alternatives in public universities: What do we know? Public Administration Review, 67(2), 315–330.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Long, M. C., & Tienda, M. (2008). Winners and losers: Changes in Texas university admissions post-hopwood. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 30(3), 255–280.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Marklein, MB. (2005). College gender gap widens: 57% are women. USA Today. Accessed April 7, 2014, from

  44. NBC Nightly News. (2013). College standards stiffer for women. Accessed May 15, 2015, from

  45. [NCES] National Center for Education Statistics. (2013a). Digest of Education Statistics 2013. Accessed June 1, 2015, from

  46. [NCES] National Center for Education Statistics. (2013b). Digest of Education Statistics 2013. Accessed June 1, 2015, from

  47. [NCES] National Center for Education Statistics. (2013c). Digest of Education Statistics 2013. Accessed June 1, 2015, from

  48. Palmer, D. J. (2013). College administrators as public servants. Public Administration Review, 73(3), 441–451.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Rabovsky, T. (2014). Support for performance-based funding: The role of political ideology, performance, and dysfunctional information environments. Public Administration Review, 74(6), 761–774.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Rodríguez-Planas, N. (2012). Longer-term impacts of mentoring, educational services, and leaning incentives: Evidence from a randomized trial in the United States. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 4(4), 121–139.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Tienda, M., & Niu, S. X. (2006). Capitalizing on segregation, pretending neutrality: College admission and the Texas top 10 % law. American Law & Economics Review, 8(2), 312–346.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  52. Tienda, M., & Sullivan, T. A. (2009). The promise and peril of the texas uniform admission law. In M. Hall, M. Krislov, & D. L. Feathermen (Eds.), The next twenty five years? Affirmative action and higher education in the United States and South Africa (pp. 155–174). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Tierney, J. (2006). On campus, a good man is hard to find. The New York Times. Accessed April 25, 2014, from

  54. Turner, S., & Bowen, W. (1999). Choice of major: The changing (Unchanging) gender gap. Industrial Labor Relations Review, 52(2), 289–313.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. (UNESCO) United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. (2009). Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an Academic Revolution. Accessed Feb 01, 2014, from

  56. Williams, A. (2010). The new math on campus. New York Times. Accessed May 10, 2015, from].

  57. Worden, V. (2006). Why we had no choice but to go coed. The Washington Post.

  58. Zumeta, W. (2010). Public policy and accountability in higher education: Lessons from the past and present for the New Millennium. In Donald Heller (Ed.), The states and public higher education policy: Affordability, access, and accountability (pp. 155–197). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lisa Dickson.



See Table 6.

Table 6 Characteristics of sample

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Conger, D., Dickson, L. Gender Imbalance in Higher Education: Insights for College Administrators and Researchers. Res High Educ 58, 214–230 (2017).

Download citation


  • Gender
  • Higher education
  • Affirmative action