Towson angles to draw males

School targets students with low grades, high test scores

October 29, 2006|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

As the percentage of men on U.S. college campuses continues to shrink, Towson University has launched an innovative program to try to admit more of them. It is accepting students with low grades but high SAT scores - a combination found far more often in males.

The university's decision to tinker with its admission standards to help men comes amid growing national concern about declining enrollment of males, who make up only 42 percent of the U.S. college population. They are just 40 percent of Towson's student body.

The low grades/high scores formula allows the school to draw from a group that is mostly men, without actually using gender as a criterion. "We made a determination two years ago, because this was a group with a large number of males, that it would help us to continue to bring males into the university," said Deborah Leather, Towson's associate provost.

While some private colleges have acknowledged they are giving an edge to male applicants, education experts said they are not aware of another public campus with an undergraduate admissions policy designed to favor men. The University of Georgia had a policy in the 1990s that explicitly gave men a boost - they all got an extra quarter point in their admission score - but it was ruled to be illegal sex discrimination.

Towson's program is different. The Academic Special Admissions Program is available to all students whose high school grades - roughly a 2.8 average - would otherwise be too low for Towson, but who also have SAT scores of about 1200, or 100 more than usual at the school.

"That cohort has a fairly high percentage of males in it," said university President Robert Caret, describing the program in a September speech. "Those of you who are parents of boys might know what I'm talking about."

The experimental program is risky because national data show that high school grades are a much better predictor of college success than standardized test scores alone. The program also raises questions about whether modifying entry standards is an appropriate remedy to the so-called gender gap since it doesn't address a root cause - that girls tend to outperform boys in high school classrooms.

But Towson is betting that by giving talented underachievers the type of academic support structure currently offered to its varsity athletes, the campus can turn smart slackers into solid students. "Our athletes have much higher graduation rates than our students at large," pointed out Lonnie McNew, senior associate vice president for enrollment management.

To help their chances of success, ASAP students sign a contract agreeing to meet regularly with an academic adviser, attend twice-weekly study halls, participate in approved campus activities and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA in their freshman year. After their first year, students are "mainstreamed" into the general student body.

Towson officials said ASAP, which started in 2005, is already showing promise, with second-year retention rates that nearly match those of its traditional student body.

Campus officials stress that the program does not exclude women, and say it should not be considered affirmative action. Of the roughly 125 freshmen enrolled so far through the pilot program, almost a quarter have been women. Students are admitted into Towson after all regular admission decisions are made, so no one who would otherwise be accepted by the university has been denied admission to make room for an ASAP student.

Towson's general counsel Michael Anselmi says he vetted the program's constitutionality before it was adopted. "It's not a preference on the basis of sex because any female who meets the criteria would be admitted," he said.

Legal experts on both sides of the affirmative action debate agreed in interviews that the Towson program is almost certainly within the boundaries drawn by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003, in which it generally upheld the rights of colleges to consider diversity in an admissions strategy, but said points-based systems were unconstitutional.

Men's participation in higher education in the U.S. has been falling for decades. Nationwide, male enrollment in college dropped from 44 percent in 1995 to 42 percent in 2003, according to the American Council on Education. In part because of its roots as a teacher-preparation college, Towson has had a 60 percent undergraduate female majority at least since the 1960s, said McNew.

As colleges around the country grapple with dwindling male enrollment, the prospect of affirmative action programs for men has become a hot topic in higher education. The admissions dean at Ohio's private Kenyon College caused a stir with a March opinion piece in The New York Times, "To All the Girls I've Rejected," in which she apologized for favoring male candidates.

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