So where are all the women who account for their nearly 60 percent share of the total? At liberal-arts colleges.
And why do female high school seniors apply to this particular type of institution in such large numbers? Because these schools, which are mainly an American phenomenon, are home to some of the best undergraduate programs in the country, and girls are more likely to choose colleges for academic rather than extracurricular reasons.
Professors at liberal-arts colleges often do research, but teaching is usually the top institutional priority. The scholarly achievements of the faculty are often seen as less important than their graduates' success in job placement and graduate-school admission. A couple of years ago, members of the chemistry department at an excellent small college in the South told me with obvious pride that each of their (mostly female) chem majors who had applied to medical schools over the past three years had received at least one offer of a full scholarship - a very impressive return on investment.
Liberal-arts colleges clearly feel pressure to address the gender imbalance. One sign has been the lengthening "wait lists" that colleges maintain so that they can add students to classes when not enough of those admitted choose to enroll.
Last spring, a high school senior I was working with received notice that she had been "wait-listed" by a school that was her first choice, a New England liberal-arts college. She visited the campus a couple of weeks later and, she said, was told by someone in the admissions office that the college planned to fill any remaining spaces with boys.
The student got the message that she would not be admitted, but it helped her shift her focus to the options she already had. In the end, she chose to attend another liberal-arts college in a big city. It lacked the traditional college-town setting she had envisioned, but it offered other benefits she had overlooked.
The college admissions playing field has never been level. The increasing dominance of girls in many applicant pools, coupled with economic uncertainties, simply means that this continues to be true in new and sometimes unexpected ways.
Grant Calder is a college counselor and teaches history at Friends' Central School.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org