Senior Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Student Aid Claudia Marroquin ’06, who leads the Bowdoin admissions office, said one topic frequently comes up when she talks with her counterparts at other liberal arts colleges: Why aren’t more men applying? In 2021, 4,027 men applied to Bowdoin, far fewer than the 5,298 women who applied that same year.
“I’m constantly on the phone with deans at other institutions.… This was a topic of conversation after we released our decisions, just figuring out what the gender parity or imbalance was,” Marroquin told the Orient in an interview in early December. “It’s not just us. It’s a common topic at conferences.”
Marroquin shared her observations in a wide-ranging interview with the Orient in December. While balance and diversity questions in admissions more often revolve around race and economic class, the phenomenon of gender imbalance at colleges and universities has been growing for decades—and markedly accelerated during the pandemic.
Marroquin said she is concerned by the trend, adding that there is no simple explanation for it. While the College does its best to cultivate a balanced class, controlling for yield can only go so far. Still, she said the College regularly presses to counter pressures that, if unchecked, would lead to far more women than men attending an institution that was once all-male. In 2021, the acceptance rate for men was 9.86 percent and 8.02 percent for women.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
You’ve touched on this already a little bit in Bowdoin Magazine, but I’m curious why you think so many fewer men are applying to college than women.
I think there’s a lot of different factors at play…. I think more than anything, it’s some of the societal pressures that men have to go into the workforce early, especially when you think of different subgroups of first-generation college men, or those who come from different immigrant backgrounds. There is a pressure to go and start earning money earlier. So you saw that definitely get exacerbated during the pandemic, and it hasn’t recovered since then. But, even before the pandemic, women far outpaced men in the applicant pools. So there’s some of those societal factors and some that are really unexplained, and I think it does baffle everyone in admissions. It’s not just us; it’s a common topic at a number of conferences.
So the pandemic exacerbated the gap between the number of male and female applicants?
As you know, this trend is happening in every industrialized country and it’s happening with men of all economic backgrounds. Do you know why this might be?
Not necessarily. I mean, across the spectrum, there’s always discussion of [the fact that] maturity levels are different between men and women. And I think even in groups of men that might be from wealthier backgrounds, I think there’s always a larger question of the return on investment in education. And that has been something that's been questioned more and more over the years, and with some fields also having microcredentials where folks could go right into the workforce. I think the tech industry is a perfect example of where you may not need a college degree anymore and you can do certification courses. That sometimes seems attractive. So it’s tough to really pinpoint because I think again there’s so many different subsections of men and … that it is something that’s a huge stumbling block.
You said in your interview with Bowdoin Magazine that Bowdoin has been doing recruitment efforts, going to schools with higher male enrollment. There’s a Reddit post from six years ago that shows a pamphlet from Bowdoin to a prospective male applicant saying, “your son is less likely to open emails….” Can you tell me more about these recruitment efforts and why you guys do them?
I think part of it is that we’ve been in a school that has tried to have parity in our gender enrollments. And part of that is because we are a liberal arts college; we’re trying to have representation from all backgrounds. And over the years, we have tried a number of different things. We’re still continuing to do some of those things. We still visit schools that might be all-male, to try to encourage young men to attend college and especially liberal arts colleges. We haven’t done something as specific as that postcard that you referenced. But as we are looking at our prospective applicant pool, we certainly do try to purchase the names of high-achieving boys and try to [get a] message to them even earlier in the process just to try to build our funnel as much as we can.
Marroquin expanded on this answer in an email to the Orient:
“There are many sources that allow us to build our prospective student base—College Board, ACT, Niche, College Greenlight, etc. We are always working to ensure that we are reaching as many prospective students as possible, especially those for whom Bowdoin might not be on their radar. High-achieving boys are certainly among this group. Student college search patterns and mindsets have shifted since the pandemic, so messaging to students earlier in their high school years, where possible, is important to not only encourage college-going behaviors but to familiarize them with Bowdoin,” she wrote.
Do you guys still send out that pamphlet?
Not that pamphlet, in particular. That one was an experimental pamphlet. Like anything, we got some great feedback and some not-so-great feedback. But we’ve ended up using some of our other messaging that is, across the board, sent to students of all different backgrounds.
Can you talk about why it’s important to have gender parity at a liberal arts school between men and women?
I think part of that is that it’s just been an institutional priority over the years to have a balance, whether that parity ends up being 60/40 [percent women to men] or however percentage you define it, I think there’s flexibility and it will ebb and wane. But, you know, we’re a school that thinks about putting leaders into society, and you want to make sure that there are also male leaders in addition to female [leaders]. So it is one of those things that the College has just looked at carefully, although how that will continue in the upcoming years is yet to be seen. A number of other schools have started to really shift in their parity. Early fall, there was an article about Tulane, where it’s now 70/30 [percent women to men]. I don’t know that we’ll necessarily get to that point that quickly, but it will be interesting to see what the future holds.
So, the data you guys reported to the government in 2020 showed that the acceptance rate for women was 8.34 percent, and it was 10.3 percent for men. How do you guys balance creating fairness for women in the application process and also admitting men?
I think that’s the toughest question. A lot of the admissions process may not seem fair to folks. And that’s where it’s complicated, because it’s about a number of different levers and priorities and how we’re trying to build a class and a community. And some people believe that it should always be fair and formulaic, and that students should really be able to understand why it is they got in or not. And that’s never going to happen, especially at a selective institution. So I think at the end of the day, we’ve built a community at Bowdoin that we’re proud of and one where every student has earned their place here. Not everyone may see that as fair, but I don't think we can ever make everyone happy and feel like it is a process that has been completely transparent or that has met the needs of every single person.
Bowdoin in 2021 had 5,298 female applicants and 4,027 male applicants, so I’m curious how much the median quality of male and female applicants differs. Say, is the top quartile of male and female applicants the same in quality, or are female applicants generally better qualified?
That’s a tough question. I think when we see the subsection of students who apply to Bowdoin, they’re really top applicants all across. So, I think we're in a very specific kind of sector of higher education, where the students who apply to Bowdoin are tremendously qualified for a number of different types of institutions. And the students we admit to Bowdoin all have met an academic standard. So I think again, it's hard to say that there's going to be a vast difference between the genders represented on our campus. Beyond the academic credentials that we're looking for, we're also looking for those characteristics and intangible qualities that make a person unique in our applicant pool and that may range from their ambitions to their ways of experiencing life and what they may believe in. And that is really hard to quantify in an average versus not average. The biggest thing that we're looking for is how they might have an impact in our community. And that's going to vary from individual to individual.
Are there any peer institutions that you think are handling this well?
No, not necessarily. I think it's an issue that we're all grappling with and trying to figure out. I'm constantly on the phone with deans at other institutions—and you know, since the pandemic, we've been doing the six-college program with other small liberal arts colleges, and this is a topic of conversation after we released our decisions, just figuring out what the gender parity or imbalance was. And I know at Pomona, for example, they've had a larger spread over the last few years.
A larger imbalance in enrollment?
Yeah. I think the schools that have been maybe not seeing the gap as large are those that might have engineering programs. So I still think that's very, very much a stereotype that men will gravitate towards engineering or STEM fields, but those are institutions that may not struggle as much with the imbalance of applications.
I’m curious if you guys did choose to expand the gap and make it farther from 50/50, which you suggested earlier that you might, why that would be.
I think this year—as we’re going through and reading early decision applications right now—what we’re keeping top of mind is making sure that we’re just starting to build a class with great students for Bowdoin. The fine-tuning really comes the day before we release decisions. So right now we’re going in hoping to have close to a 50/50 [percent split]. We’ll see, because we’re fine letting that go, along with other priorities, as long as we’re getting a great class for Bowdoin and a great community. That’s some of the nuances of hitting the perfection of a 50/50 [percent split] on gender or geographic representation, having all 50 states represented—that ends up not being as important as getting great people for the College.
How does it compare to the importance of recruiting a racially diverse and economically diverse student body?
I think having a diverse student body is the most important thing for us, because of all the different viewpoints that get expressed in a classroom. When we’re looking at gender, it’s important but it wouldn’t be as important, I would say, personally speaking, as having diversity across the broad spectrum.
Do you share concerns with other admissions officers, which were expressed in that New York Times piece, that a gender imbalance makes a college less desirable to potential applicants?
I don’t know if our applicants or prospective students are asking that specific question. I think it's always top of mind for students, but it hasn't come up necessarily in the conversations we've had with students. What I see more and more students asking about is diversity as a whole rather than gender diversity. I when it comes down to gender, students want to make sure that it would be a safe place if they are questioning their own gender identity. But having an equal balance has not necessarily come up in conversations with prospective students at Bowdoin.
So if the imbalance started to grow, or if the Office of Admissions chose to expand the desired gender split, you guys wouldn’t be super concerned about it making Bowdoin less attractive?
Oh, I don’t know that I’d go that far! It’s hard to tell how students would react to a huge imbalance. From that New York Times piece, it certainly seemed like it would be a concern—it should be a concern because there were a lot of opinions expressed that it would become less desirable. I think at the end of the day, there’s a desire for students to have a quality education and one where they’re going to interact with students with a multitude of identities. I don’t know that they’re necessarily considering sex as closely as diversity in the broader spectrum, at least from the students we’re talking to.
Does athletic recruitment help bring a greater number of men to Bowdoin?
There is an aspect of that where athletic recruitment does help with that. Obviously, we do have an equal number of athletic teams and some large rosters like football, lacrosse, hockey do help in that. So there is that piece, where that’s part of the larger puzzle.
The results for the Class of 2028 applicant cycle will be announced by April 1, 2024.