When most people think of affirmative action at the College, they usually associate it with minorities and students from low-income backgrounds. However, according to the master’s thesis written by Laura Parrish M.A. ’88, the College has implemented affirmative action policies targeted at white males of no particular economic background since at least the 1930s. These policies were sparked by a sharp decline in male enrollment during these times.
The number of women on campus had increased drastically due to the College’s specialization in “teacher training.” Because the College was the state school reputed to have the best teaching program, it was the top choice among women looking to enter education. Conversely, the University of Virginia was a more popular choice for men. To further complicate the male enrollment problem, women not only applied in greater numbers but also had better academic records than did male applicants.
Although the first women came to the College in 1918, some male students still had difficulties adjusting to the female presence on campus in the 1930s. When the enrollment of women reached 46 percent in 1930, the Nov. 7 issue of The Flat Hat conducted a survey asking: “What do you think of the influx of women at William and Mary this year?”
The response was overwhelmingly negative.
“If it keeps up this way, William and Mary will be a girl’s school in a couple of years,” one student said.
Another student commented on the male-female ratio.
“The supply certainly exceeds the demand,” he said.
Echoing these students’ sentiments was the District of Columbia Alumni Chapter. In 1933, they wrote a letter to the Board of Visitors “expressing their concern over the increasing number of women.” In 1936, then-College President John Stewart Bryan recognized the need to increase male enrollment — at that point, female enrollment surpassed that of men. Bryan, however, looked past the gender ratio.
“I have no doubt that the board will agree it is a choice between superior women students or far less satisfactory men students,” he wrote in a report to the Board of Visitors. “Quality has to be recognized.”
Bryan’s assertion could not squelch the indignation over the imbalance of men and women on campus. In 1937, the Alumni Association Board proposed two affirmative action policies.
According to Parrish’s thesis, they wanted to “establish an official ratio of 60 percent men to 40 percent women” and “abandon its policy of admitting only those students who graduated in the top of half of their high school class.” This policy was proposed because more women applicants had graduated at the top of their class than did the men.
The BOV later suggested that “men and women be judged separately, accepting the men who graduated in the top half among male students and accepting women who graduated in the top half among female students.”
In 1940, Bryan created a committee to examine the issues surrounding female enrollment. The committee concluded that men accepted to the College were about three times more likely to fail courses than women. Therefore, the College implemented the Alumni Board’s proposals and decided to offer more scholarship aid to men as well as classes directed more to male students.
These changes were mostly successful until the beginning of World War II in 1941, when the enrollment of men fell as a result of the war. The percentage of men dropped further once the draft age was lowered to 18. Because of this change, it was necessary once again to increase female enrollment.
Today, the acceptance rate among female applicants in much lower than that of males — 28 percent compared to 44 percent for the class of 2011. But unlike in the past, there is no significant difference in SAT scores or class rank.