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Report Card - Access to Higher Education

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| Progress Reports | Action Agenda | Executive Summary (AAUW web site)


Title IX has made great inroads in higher education, providing women with much greater access to our nation's colleges and universities, which is as critical to their economic well–being and success today as it was in 1972 when Congress enacted the statute. Title IX has helped reduce sex discrimination, most notably in admissions standards, to the benefit of women and men alike. But other barriers to higher education persist, including sex segregation and disparities in financial aid awards, among others.

Admissions. Up until the 1970s, a great many of the nation's colleges and universities––and public––simply excluded women outright. Institutions that admitted women welcomed them with a maze of obstacles including quotas, requirements to live in limited on–campus housing, and tougher admissions criteria. Other colleges and universities strictly scrutinized whether women applicants were serious about pursuing a degree, based on their assumptions that women were most interested in marriage and children. In college interviews, women applicants to doctoral programs often had to explain how they would combine a career with a family. Admissions policies too frequently were guided by traditional attitudes about the 'proper' place of women and the widespread belief that women would drop out of school to take their 'rightful' place in the home. As a result, many colleges and universities limited women's entry to ensure that only the most 'committed' students–men–would have access to educational opportunities.

Title IX Snapshot
  • Harvard University, which opened its doors in 1636, did not admit women until 1943.
  • The University of Virginia excluded women until 1970.
  • The University of North Carolina limited the number of women by requiring them to live on campus, where there was little housing. Men, in contrast, could live anywhere they wanted.
  • Women seeking admission to the New York State College of Agriculture in the early 1970s needed SAT scores 30 to 40 points higher than men.

Twenty–five years later, most such overt practices have been eliminated throughout higher education. Women have walked through these newly opened doors of opportunity in ever increasing numbers across the board:

Women clearly have made gains in achieving access to higher education, as these figures demonstrate. However, women still lag behind their male counterparts in earning doctoral and professional degrees, which is especially striking in light of the number of women receiving bachelor's degrees.

Percentage of Degrees Awarded to Women
Degree 1971-72 1996-97
Associate of Arts 45 60
Bachelor of Arts 44 56
Master of Arts 41 51
Ph.D. 16 39
First Professional 6 40

Financial Aid. Twenty–five years ago, just as today, financial aid meant the difference between pursuing higher education and abandoning that dream. Prior to Title IX, many colleges and universities kept women from receiving this critical assistance by:

  • restricting the most prestigious scholarships, such as the Rhodes Scholarship, to men;
  • giving preference to men in the award of other scholarships, fellowships, and loans;
  • withholding financial aid from women who were married, pregnant, or parenting, or from part–time students, who were more likely to be women;
  • failing to allow for child care expenses; or
  • tracking women into low paying work–study jobs.
Title IX meant an end to many policies and practices denying women financial aid. Over the past 25 years, financial aid programs have been modified to facilitate women's access into higher education, recognizing that many women must support not only themselves, but also their families, as they pursue degrees. Women make up almost 60 percent of part–time students and 58 percent of students over 24. Women who attend a postsecondary institution also are twice as likely as men to have dependents, and three times as likely to be single parents. To make higher education more accessible to these students, Congress enacted several key provisions in the 1986 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. For example, Pell Grants and campus–based aid are now awarded to part–time students as well as full–time students. In addition, Pell Grants include an allowance for child care expenses as part of calculating the cost of attendance. Moreover, all students are allowed to waive the value of their home in the calculation of expected family contribution to determine eligibility for financial aid.

However, despite these advances, disparities still exist in the distribution of financial aid. For example, according to a 1997 study by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), women athletes receive only 38 percent of scholarship dollars: for that year, men received a whopping $1.5 million in athletics scholarships, compared to just $634,689 for women. In addition, although Title IX allows educational institutions to take affirmative steps to remedy past discrimination, it also allows colleges and universities to exclude women from certain scholarships that have no remedial purpose whatsoever. Title IX's implementing regulation permits schools to administer scholarships created under a will, bequest, or other legal instrument that is sex specific: for example, scholarships exist for male engineering students who are members of the Sigma Chi Fraternity, men from New Jersey, or men who attended certain high schools. Unlike many scholarships targeting women and people of color, these scholarships do not remedy past discrimination; in fact, they help men gain access to fields in which they already are well represented.

Sex Segregation in Courses. Even though growing numbers of women receive degrees in all levels of postsecondary education, they continue to be underrepresented in non–traditional fields that lead to greater earning power upon graduation. Women continue to be clustered in areas traditional for their gender. Data from 1992–1993, for example, show that women received 77 percent of the undergraduate education degrees, 73 percent of psychology degrees, and 66 percent of English degrees. In contrast, women earned only 26 percent of undergraduate degrees in computer and information sciences, 18 percent of the physics degrees, and fewer than 15 percent of all undergraduate engineering degrees. This pattern of sex segregation directly limits women's earning power upon graduation because careers in math and the sciences frequently result in higher pay. For example, in 1996 engineers had median weekly earnings of $949; in contrast, elementary school teachers' median weekly earnings that year were $662, about 30 percent less.

Room for Improvement
  • Women still lag behind men in earning doctoral and professional degrees.
  • Disparities regarding athletics scholarships persist.
  • Some scholarships still are reserved for men.
  • Women are underrepresented in math and science, due, in large part, to the hostile environment many confront in these areas.
  • Educational institutions are moving to dismantle affirmative action programs that have increased access to women and students of color.
  • Low-income women have lost an avenue to higher education because of the new welfare law.

Sex segregation is even more acute among women pursuing doctoral degrees, where they already are underrepresented. For the academic year 1993–94, women received 22 percent of all mathematics doctorate degrees, 15 percent of doctorates awarded in computers and information sciences, 12 percent of physics doctorate degrees, and only 11 percent of all doctorates awarded in engineering. Women earned doctorates in areas traditional for their gender, earning 61 percent of all psychology doctoral degrees, 60 percent of foreign language doctoral degrees, and 59 percent of education doctoral degrees. Women's underrepresentation in math and science–related fields affects more than their earning potential. It also limits the numbers of women university professors in these fields, who, in turn could encourage more young women to enter math and science programs.

The hostile environment many women encounter in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering no doubt plays a great role in women's underrepresentation in these fields. Research has shown that women pursuing math and sciences in higher education face outright hostility in too many instances:

  • deliberate sabotaging of female students' experiments;
  • constant comments that women do not belong in certain departments or schools;
  • interspersing slide presentations with pictures of nude women, purportedly to 'liven up' the classroom; or
  • sexual harassment in laboratory or field work, causing women to avoid these settings altogether.
Less blatant forms of sexism also are commonplace, and make the environment equally unpleasant. For example:
  • Male faculty may be reluctant to work with women because they question their competence.
  • Male students may exclude women from study groups and project teams.
  • Male students who do work with women may try to dominate projects.
  • Many faculty refuse to incorporate the work of women in math and science in the curriculum, reinforcing women's invisibility in these areas.
The 'chilly' climate for women, coupled with the small number of female faculty in math, sciences, and engineering, effectively limit women's access to these fields and, in so doing, close off important career alternatives for women.

Limiting Access in the Future. Recent policy developments threaten women's access to higher education, signaling a retrenchment of the progress made through 25 years of Title IX. For example, in 1996, the Congress and President Clinton approved a new welfare law that prohibits women receiving public assistance from attending a postsecondary institution as a means of meeting their work requirement. Prior to this law, states had the discretion to allow welfare recipients to attend a two–year or four–year college. These women are now denied a path that could lead to self–sufficiency.

In addition, recent assaults on affirmative action could mean the end of programs that have helped women redress past sex discrimination and enhanced their educational opportunities, particularly in areas where they have been and continue to be underrepresented, such as math and science. The 1996 passage of California Proposition 209 and the Hopwood v. State of Texas decision may give impetus to colleges and universities, in many cases unnecessarily, to dismantle the current policies and impede access to higher education for women and people of color.

Grade: B–


  • The U.S. Department of Education should submit an annual report to Congress detailing disbursement of financial aid, loans and grants, and awards in higher education disaggregated by race and gender. The Department also should provide recommendations for addressing disparities in financial aid distribution.
  • The Department of Education and other federal agencies funding higher education programs should target Title IX enforcement to address discriminatory practices that discourage women from pursuing math and science majors.
  • Educational institutions should provide opportunities to encourage women to enter math and science fields of study and develop programs designed to increase women's retention in these areas.
  • Congress should amend the welfare law to allow women on welfare the opportunity to pursue postsecondary education and to allow college study and work study to count toward a welfare recipient's work requirement.
  • The Department of Education should clarify legally acceptable forms of affirmative action in education for women and people of color and encourage their use.
  • Congress should restore funding to the Patricia Roberts Harris Fellowships to encourage women and students of color to enter master's, professional, and doctoral programs where they are underrepresented.
  • Yolanda T. Moses, Black Women in Academe: Issues and Strategies (Association of American Colleges, 1989).
  • S.S. Nieves-Squires, Hispanic Women in Academe: Making their Presence on Campus Less Tenuous (Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, 1991).
  • B.R. Sandler, L. Silverberg, and R.M. Hall, The Chilly Classroom Climate: A Guide to Improve the Education of Women (National Association for Women in Education, 1996).
  • B.R. Sandler, Women Faculty in the Classroom, Or, Why it Still Hurts to be a Woman in Labor (National Association for Women in Education, 1993).
  • B.R. Sandler, B.R. and R.M.S. Hall, The Campus Climate Revisited: Chilly for Women Faculty, Administrators and Graduate Students (Association of American Colleges, 1986).
  • U.S. Department of Education. National Advisory Council on Women's Educational Programs, Title IX: The Half Full, Half Empty Glass (1981).
  • U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, NCES 96-133 (1996).
  • U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics, NPSAS:96 Federal Aid Recipients 1995-96. (October 1996).
  • U.S. Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment and Earnings (January 1997).


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