PHILADELPHIA -- As a white male from the suburbs of New York, Brendan Scheld had never felt like a minority.
But that was before he enrolled as a freshman at the University of Delaware.
In last semester's calculus course of 40 students, he said, only five men would show up for class.
"We'd all kind of look at each other, and we'd have each other's backs," Scheld said over a recent lunch at the university's crowded food court, where he and a fraternity brother were the only pair of men sitting together.
Not that he and his friend, Ryan Helthall, are complaining. "We both have girlfriends we met here," said Helthall, a senior from Sparta, N.J. "We did not have slim pickings."
When it comes to finding enough men to fill their freshmen classes, it is the nation's admissions officers who have to hunt hard.
Twenty years after women became the majority on campus, college administrators are struggling to strike a gender balance even as female applicants outnumber men by nearly 30 percent.
Nationally, as at Delaware, about 58 percent of college undergraduates are women, with some campuses at 70 percent.
That's well beyond the point where the character of a college shifts, and may make a school less appealing to some of the highly qualified students it seeks to attract.
"Colleges will then be unable to attract the female students they want most -- or so they fear," wrote Gail Heriot, a professor of law at the University of San Diego and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Alerted by media reports that some admissions officers may be accepting less-qualified male students over female applicants, the Civil Rights Commission is investigating whether women are being discriminated against in college admissions.
"Everybody should feel very uncomfortable by the notion that it is more difficult for a woman to get into a college than a man," Heriot said in an interview.
Last year, the commission subpoenaed the admissions records of 19 colleges, including the University of Delaware and five in Pennsylvania. All but one were picked at random within different categories, including elite universities, religious schools, and historically black universities.
The University of Richmond was chosen after U.S News and World Report said its admission rate for men was 13 percentage points higher than for women.
Frank Mussano, a dean at York College of Pennsylvania, thought his institution was in deep trouble when he heard it would get a subpoena. Then he realized the picks had been random. At York, 54 percent of freshmen are women.
"We are completely gender blind, so there is no reason the commission would be worried about bias at this institution," Mussano said. "We admit students when they meet the admission requirements, and we admit them until we are full."
But he fully understands why many colleges would try to keep the genders even.
At Delaware, Alpha Phi sorority sisters recently stood outside their house, raising money with a lemonade stand. They certainly notice the missing men. Their pledge class of 60 is larger than the entire membership of many fraternities.
"It's a little harder to find a good group of guy friends," said sophomore Gabrielle Portera, from Greenwich, Conn.
Outside the food court, Kellye Foulke, 18, said she hadn't even considered attending a college with 70 percent women.
"In the real world," she said, "you aren't going to be working with a majority of females."
WHERE ARE THE MEN?
Ivory Nelson, president of Lincoln University in Chester County, Pa., one of the subpoenaed schools, said that he would love to have an even gender balance but that his historically black college had long been 60 percent female.
"The pool is not there," Nelson said.
And fewer men make it to graduation, too. Nelson shakes each graduate's hand as seniors cross the stage, and recently he caught himself counting the men graduating from a college that once served only male students.
"The women outnumber them, 4-1," he said. In truth, 65 percent of graduates last spring were women.
Why? Because minority men have the highest high school dropout rates in the nation, face crushing urban poverty, and land in prison at alarming rates.
"We've lost two generations of black males to the penal system," Nelson said.
Margaret Anderson, a sociology professor and an acting associate provost at Delaware, echoed a common sentiment among students and administrators when she said women seemed more motivated to go to college and more assertive about how to get in.
"I think women do know they need some education to have security in their lives," she said. "If you don't get an education, you know you're going to be dependent on someone."
But that is not the same message young men seem to be getting.
"There are different opportunity patterns for men than women," said Anderson, noting, as did Nelson, that men are more inclined to join the military or seek work in the skilled trades -- though those jobs are no longer as plentiful as they once were.
Michael Kimmel is a sociologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and author of "Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men." Kimmel notes that, in fact, more men are going to college than ever before -- those numbers are rising for both genders.
And a recent report shows the gender gap is no longer widening.
But inside the numbers is another story.
According to Kimmel, upper-income men are going to college at the same rate as their female counterparts. But black men make up only 35 percent of black college students. Latino men make up 40 percent of Latino students. And working-class men make up only one-third of working-class students.
"The crisis of attendance is not uniform but affects poor and minority students more significantly," Kimmel said.
Men, he believes, have not figured out how to navigate a changed economy that increasingly demands a college degree for a good job.
And more often, studies show, they shrug off the value of a college education, Kimmel said.
"They think that studying is wimpy, that studying and caring about what happens in classes is sissy."
Heriot, who is leading the Civil Rights Commission's investigation, said Title IX bars sexual discrimination on college campuses with one exception: in admissions by private liberal arts schools.
"That's why you can have a Smith or a Mount Holyoke," she said.
The commission selected a mix of schools as a starting point.
"Right now," Heriot said, "we're just trying to establish: Is it happening? And how widespread is it?"
She said the reasons were not well understood.
"I believe that schools are very sincere in being concerned about gender balance and they're worried that if they don't have enough men, eventually they won't have enough women, but they are competing with each other for a limited pool of male applicants."
State-supported undergraduate schools, graduate programs, and professional schools are not allowed to discriminate in admissions.
The trick is in the law, the numbers, and the ripple effect. If liberal arts colleges do legally discriminate in admissions to achieve gender parity, that means even fewer men are available for the public institutions, where such discrimination would be illegal.
If widespread discrimination against women is found, Heriot said, the commission will likely ask the college presidents for ideas on how to ease the man shortage in other ways, such as adding more disciplines attractive to them.
"If we're not satisfied with that, we may try to come up with some ideas ourselves," Heriot said.
Any illegal activity would be turned over to another agency for enforcement.
First, the commission needs to collect the data. Four of the subpoenaed schools, Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, Messiah College and Gettysburg College -- the latter two in Pennsylvania -- have not turned over records. Heriot said that she expected they all would, but that they were worried about disclosing their secret formulas for creating the ideal freshman class.
A final report is expected in 2011.
Meanwhile, the women are marching on to advanced degrees.
Last month, the Council of Graduate Schools reported that in 2009, for the first time, women received more doctorates than men.
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