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A Closer Look at the College Gender Imbalance

I think just about every college-aged person on Twitter has made some comment about this article in the past few days. The premise is simple enough: more women go to college than men and the imbalance creates a social burden for women and amazing opportunity for men. Many people, myself included, look at this article and think, "heh, I wish this were true at my university."

(from Flickr user opacity)

The author, Alex Williams, focuses on the culture at the University of North Carolina. Admittedly, I know little about either UNC or Chapel Hill, but my research turns up these statistics... Chapel Hill is a fairly small city, with a population about 55,000 (I don't know whether or not that includes students) and a relatively low population density (2,750 per square mile). It's part of the Durham metro area, which is the 103rd largest in the United States, with a population of a little less than 500,000. Because of these demographics, I'm weary of attempts to apply the circumstances at UNC to other universities.

Consider a hypothetical university that has a perfect 50/50 gender split; but it also has a nursing school, where 95% of the students are women. And because nursing has a very specific curriculum, the gender imbalance is skewed in favor of women who attend classes and are majors in other departments.

Now, you could say, "it doesn't matter because these students are ultimately all on the same campus." But that raises another key point: why does the social environment need to be contained within the campus? Williams points out that more women than men attend both New York University and Fordham University. But in these cases, there's no reason women from these universities can't associate with the millions of men in New York City, and presumably, they do. After all, what single guy wouldn't show up at a bar in Greenwich Village where there are supposedly six women for every man?

The magnitude to which a gender imbalance exists, I think, depends heavily on the city where the university is located and whether or not the campus is "open or closed". One quick litmus test we can use is to ask whether or not students at a university refer to locals as "townies" - a term I wasn't familiar with until I visited Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, a rural campus that definitely can be classified as "closed". I can't imagine many NYU or Fordham students referring to the residents of NYC as "townies".

In places where campuses are open, gender imbalances will tend toward equilibrium more efficiently. There might be significantly more women than men at a Greenwich Village bar on Monday night, but word will get around quickly, and by Tuesday night that gap will be narrowed or closed. But at schools where the primary means of closing the gender gap is enrolling more men at the university, the imbalance may never return to an equilibrium. It's easy to read articles like Williams's in hindsight and think, "wow, I wish I would have gone here or there". But when teenagers are in high school picking a school to attend, few are looking at statistics on gender imbalances or factoring them significantly into their decisions. Perhaps that will start to change now that the cat is out of the bag.


Rob, the gender imbalance is huge. Across most campuses. Males are 40% or less of incoming students nationally, and just 35% of graduates. The gender split was 50-50 in 1980, but has been increasingly female since then. Resulting in a huge shortage of skilled workers in science, engineering, large animal vet med and others. We have extensive research on this at and
Kristen said…
The writer and the article are off in some ways. They focused on the Greek culture at UNC-Chapel Hill, which on many campuses is only 10% or less of the population. They also forgot to mention that Duke University, NC State University(where I went and may be going again) NC Central University(which probably didn't meet the color criteria for the article) and many other smaller colleges/universities are within 30-45 miles of each other. Two of these schools are engineering schools. I would have believed this article more if the writer took into account that UNC Chapel Hill is a part of a 1.5+ million person metro area, where students do mingle with other schools.

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