This column is featured in the 2022 Homecoming special issue.
This Monday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in two cases challenging the legality of race-based affirmative action in college admissions. The Court’s 6-3 conservative majority, clearly willing to overturn longtime precedents, seems likely to side with plaintiffs suing Harvard University and the University of North Carolina — thus finding the practice of affirmative action unconstitutional. The New York Times’ Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak put it bluntly earlier this month: “The question really is not, ‘Are the universities going to lose?’ They’re very likely to lose. But how badly are they going to lose?”
This time next year, then, Dartmouth will be accepting applications for the Class of 2028 under an entirely new regime of college admissions — one in which any consideration of race will be illegal. Vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid Lee Coffin sat down with me to talk admissions, and he agreed that affirmative action is likely to go — worrying that the Harvard case in particular may lead to an even broader judicial rebuke of “holistic review,” the practice that gives schools wide latitude to shape their classes.
“In that scenario… then we’re back to where colleges were in the early twentieth century, where you take an entrance exam and you get in or you don’t,” he said.
That outcome is unlikely, Coffin and I agreed. But affirmative action is on its way out nonetheless. In response, Dartmouth could seize this moment as an opportunity to rethink how it approaches choosing its students. Instead of trying to socially engineer its perfect student body, the College should mitigate the effects of the Supreme Court’s decision and rededicate itself to admitting students who will benefit most from an elite education.
One illustrative place to start: ending affirmative action for men.
Affirmative action for men (at Dartmouth)
Yes, you read that right. I reviewed Common Data Set submissions for Dartmouth (which contain breakdowns of men and women, but unfortunately not non-binary, applicants). Since 2010, the acceptance rate for men applying to Dartmouth has been higher than for women in all but three years. The year I was admitted, 2018, saw a 9.18% acceptance rate for men and an 8.33% acceptance rate for women. That’s a small absolute margin — but because the admissions rate is so low already, a randomly selected male applicant was 10.3% more likely to get in than a randomly selected female applicant.
Why does this occur? “The goal is keep the class balanced as best you can,” Coffin told me. Dartmouth aims for an even split between men and women, and it succeeds: Since 1997, the percentages of men and women students in each new class have hovered between 52% and 48% — a remarkable consistency. The problem is, Dartmouth gets more women applicants than men most years. To get an even class, then, the acceptance rate for men must be higher than the rate for women.
Notably, from 2013-2015, the acceptance rate was actually higher for women. Those are also the only three years in which more men applied than women. Gender balancing carries the day — and not just at Dartmouth. With some year-to-year variance, Brown University, Columbia University, Yale University and northeastern liberal arts schools like Bowdoin College, Middlebury College, Swarthmore College and Williams College generally get more women applicants and admit a higher percentage of men. Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania generally get more men applicants and thus make it a bit easier for women.
“Everywhere I’ve worked, that’s been the goal,” Coffin, who worked in admissions at Tufts University and Connecticut College before coming to Dartmouth, said. “... No one’s ever said to me, ‘The class has to be balanced.’ I mean, it’s such a given.”
Well, until next year, racial affirmative action will have been a given, too. And then, it will be dead.
Kill the sacred cow
Coffin called challenging the 50/50 split “a provocative question.” Gender balance helps both men and women find communities on campus without feeling like outcasts, he said, and ensures that perspectives from both are heard.
He also argued that the focus on just gender in the acceptance rate figures masks the underlying “subdata points that all bundle up into what we call selectivity.” The College is not only selecting for gender balance — it also looks for geographic diversity, academic interest diversity, socioeconomic factors, legacy students, athletic promise and a few dozen other things, according to Coffin. Each of those intersects with gender: “Are there men of color on your campus, or is all the diversity female?” he asked rhetorically. “What does first-gen representation look like by gender? — and that means female on a lot of campuses, including ours. What’s the athletic dimension of this? As you go across all those groups when you’re in a classroom, what voices are there — from the lived experience they bring to college?”
I do think that a diversity of perspectives on campus enhances students’ education. But gender balancing in particular is remarkably distortive because girls so dramatically outperform boys in primary and secondary school. Girls’ average high school grade is an “A,” while boys average a “B,” according to a 2013 National Bureau of Economic Research study. Girls both spend more time studying and misbehave less as early as elementary school. Boys are more likely to drop out before graduating high school in general and were especially likely to drop out during the COVID-19 pandemic. These disparities are important and deserve their own look — but regardless, they indicate that right now, more women are prepared for college than men.
That difference in preparation shows: Nationwide, roughly 60% of college students are women — an all-time high. Yet many elite schools still somehow receive more applications from men, and those that do not — like Dartmouth — continue to aim for that 50/50 gender divide. In other words, with this wave of collegiate women, there should be more women at Dartmouth, and at other elite schools, than there are. This speaks to a broader issue: Top colleges may still be subconsciously seen, by applicants or by admissions committees, as places that are better suited for men. “For whatever reason, over the generations, some places develop vibes that are hard to disrupt,” Coffin said, chalking the disparities up to differing campus cultures, curricula and locations.
I would put it differently: As applied at Dartmouth, gender balancing constitutes structural sexism, one more hurdle women must overcome. Coffin confirmed that the applicant pools for men and women at Dartmouth do not differ substantially in academic qualification. If that is the case, why not at least allow for an approximately 53% women class — in line with the applicant pool for 2021? Stubbornly aiming for 50/50 as more and more women seek college degrees will become, over time, increasingly untenable for the College. Shifting away from this would be a move toward equality.
Target resources toward applicants with the most to gain
Why am I focusing on gender balancing? It is a relatively small element overall in the admissions process, but it is illustrative of the College’s distortive desire to “shape” its class. Many of the subcategories of “selectivity” skew campuses even more dramatically. Legacy and athletic preferences result in far wealthier campuses, for example. They should be tossed, as I’ve written before. There is a better way of thinking about admissions: Overall, instead of trying to cultivate a perfectly chosen class — and instead of relying solely on academic qualifications, which disproportionately benefits students from high-income backgrounds — Dartmouth should target acceptance letters toward applicants whom its educational facilities and resources would benefit the most.
Selective colleges like Dartmouth are engines of socioeconomic mobility, helping graduates raise their lifetime earnings. But they do so unevenly: “students from disadvantaged family backgrounds (in terms of educational attainment) experience a higher return to attending a selective college than those from more advantaged family backgrounds,” according to a National Bureau of Economic Research report. Higher indeed: For the students from “advantaged family backgrounds,” the benefit was zero.
This suggests an alternative model that Dartmouth should embrace. It should put its $8.1 billion endowment to work educating primarily students from low-income and lower-education families. Put bluntly, this country only has so many spots at elite colleges and universities. Those schools should ensure that their scarce and extremely valuable resources are employed to the maximum societal benefit. The students starting with less should get the boost that comes with a top education.
The ideal post-affirmative action admissions system thus incorporates strong economic mobility targeting alongside academic merit and a couple of other common-sense factors, like ensuring a reasonable balance of academic interests. This overhaul would, of course, result in a dramatically different-looking Dartmouth. Getting rid of legacy and athletic admissions would likely mean more access for students who do not come from advantaged backgrounds. Getting rid of gender balancing would mean, in all likelihood, a women-heavy campus — at least until the imbalances of grade school education are addressed. So be it: Both of these outcomes are opportunities, not problems. This school has long been the redoubt of (historically male) elites — in 2014, the College admitted more students from the top 1% of the income bracket than the bottom 60% combined, and it was only 50 years ago that Dartmouth began letting women in despite strong opposition. Rather than perpetuate longtime injustices, it is high time that Dartmouth becomes the engine of economic success it has the potential to be.
Kyle Mullins is the former editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth. He is now a member of the Opinion staff and his views do not necessarily represent those of The Dartmouth.
Kyle ('22) is the former editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth, Inc. and an opinion writer for The Dartmouth from St. Petersburg, Florida. He is studying history, economics and public policy at the College. In his free time, he also enjoys climbing, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and a good book.
As former editor-in-chief, Kyle's views do not represent those of The Dartmouth.