Since 1980: Growing numbers of Emory students

While one of the first women to graduate from Emory University registered at the Lamar School of Law in 1917, it was not until 1968 – more than 50 years later – that Emory College hired its first female tenured professor, Lore Metzger, Professor of English and Comparative Literature. It took another 12 years before the number of women incoming Emory College tied for the number of men in 1980, after quotas on female acceptances were abolished by College faculty in 1971.

This male/female ratio has since steadily increased for women, with the number of women eventually exceeding that of men. Since 2016, Emory has consistently seen more than 57% of its undergraduate student body made up of female students, a trend that is representative of an increase in the number of women attending higher education in the United States.

In 1978, women compound 49.9% of the total number of students attending post-secondary institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the decades since, that figure has risen to 57.4% in 2019, with projections holding at least those levels through 2029.

“These are profound cultural and economic forces in the country,” said Dean of Admissions John Latting. “Emory is in the market, [we] we cannot exempt ourselves from these forces.

However, a plateau in male enrollment in higher education is also an issue worth investigating, Latting said. From 2015 to 2019, the percentage of males aged 18 to 24 in the United States registered in higher education institutions hovered around 37%. In contrast, about 44% of the female population of the same age group in the United States is enrolled in institutions of higher learning.

Center for Women at Emory (CWE) director Chanel Tanner said the changing ratio did not represent more women attending college, but rather men enrolling at a slower rate.

Emory’s gender enrollment gap could be attributed to a number of reasons, including variations by academic discipline, Latting said. For example, the University does not have a school of engineering, a predominantly male discipline.

In 2018, 622,502 students were enrolled full-time in undergraduate engineering programs with 131,937 degrees awarded, according to at the American Society for Engineering Education. Women earned 21.9% of these degrees, with similar rates of 26.7% and 23.6% respectively for master’s and doctoral degrees.

“If you took out the engineering school at Duke, Penn, WashU, or Hopkins, I think you’d get a picture that looks a lot like Emory,” Latting said. “The challenges Emory faces are different from those of our peers who work with engineering schools – traditionally they have tried to be more attractive to women, and it’s important that they do.”

Faculty composition may also play a role, according to Tanner, who underscored the importance of looking beyond overall enrollment distributions and progression from “diversity to inclusion.”

“I think as more and more women get degrees and enter the workforce and into fields that are not traditionally done by women, there is this change that needs to happen” , Tanner said. “This is where diversity comes first, then inclusion is the natural next step.”

Women’s enrollment in graduate programs in particular is linked to economic downturns, according to Amanda James, director of diversity at Laney Graduate School.

“That’s really key to explaining why higher education sometimes seems to fluctuate, but it’s even more important when the economy is weaker,” James said. “In general, women value education, and so they tend to go to higher education when the economy is bad, they feel like more experience for career or job they want will be better for them.”

However, implementing process and policy changes in all programs cannot be done in all programs in one step. Graduate admissions are decentralized at the University, with each school and program choosing from its own pools of applicants. This makes the process more personalized for finding scholars whose backgrounds match the work done in their prospective programs.

“So theoretically we have 47 admissions officers, one for each program more or less,” James said. “It’s critical to think about what the graduate school can do to grow the pool, but how the graduate school can do to help programs get a holistic view of candidates once they enter the pool.”

Given the slow pace of change in gender equity among university leaders, Tanner said she was pleased with the number of female leaders at Emory.

“Emory is amazing, I’m always amazed at how many women leaders, women of color leaders, we’ve had a woman president, which is super rare,” Tanner said.

Campus Life Assistant Vice President Dona Yarbrough, who was a former CWE director, echoed those sentiments in a March 28 email to the wheel.

“The growing number of female students has paved the way for Emory’s gains in the number of female faculty, administrators, and leaders, although these gains are occurring at a much slower pace,” Yabrough wrote. “I’ve seen Emory appoint its first female president, first female dean of law school, first female dean of business school, etc.”

Sallie R. Loera