SANTA CLARA, Calif. — When admissions officers for Santa Clara University recruit new freshmen, they do their best to reach the kind of students they'd like to see more of on the Silicon Valley campus: boys.
"We make a special pitch to them to talk about the benefits of Santa Clara, as we do for other underrepresented groups," Charles Nolan, Santa Clara's vice provost for admissions, said of the school's efforts to boost male applicants.
It's a startling development to anyone who remembers that Santa Clara was all male until 1960. But the Jesuit-run school reflects an important transformation of American college life.
Among the 4,550 undergraduates at Santa Clara, 57% are female. That matches the percentage of U.S. bachelor's degrees now awarded to women, a demographic shift that has accelerated since women across the country began to attend college at a higher rate than men about a decade ago.
Today, many colleges, particularly selective residential schools, face a dilemma unthinkable a generation ago.
To place well in influential college rankings, those schools must enroll as many top high school students as they can -- and most of those students are female. Administrators are watching closely for the "tipping point" at which schools become unappealing to both men and women. They fear that lopsided male-female ratios will hurt the social life and diverse classrooms they use as selling points.
Despite employing the same tactics used for years to lure ethnic minority students, few colleges say they give admissions preferences to boys. But high school counselors and admissions experts say they believe it is happening.
"At some schools, it's definitely a strategic advantage" to be male, said Chuck Hughes, a former Harvard admissions officer who is now a private admissions counselor and author of "What it Really Takes to Get into the Ivy League and Other Highly Selective Colleges."
Vincent Garcia, a college counselor at the Los Angeles prep school Campbell Hall, said liberal arts colleges, especially, can be "more forgiving of the occasional B or even a C" from a boy. "Sometimes the expectation is a little bit less" than for girls, he said.
At Santa Clara, admission standards have risen along with female enrollment, and officials say those have not eased for boys. But for the last two years, the college has targeted special mailings to high school boys. Current students also telephone every accepted male to encourage him to attend, something that is not done for every girl.
So far, Santa Clara's change into a female-majority campus has been more evolution than revolution.
Football was dropped in 1993, but now thousands of students instead fill the stadium to cheer the women's soccer team. Women routinely hold most of the campus leadership positions. And when the student union was remodeled recently, the number of men's toilets -- which had been more than double those for women -- was cut to make space for more women's stalls.
If students complain about the gender mix, it is usually with a sense of humor. "My friends tell me I should switch my major to engineering if I want a boyfriend," joked student government president and religious studies major Annie Selak, citing one of the few mostly male sectors on campus.
Pepperdine University is another school carefully watching its enrollment. Admissions Director Michael Truschke said the Malibu campus does consider an applicant's sex, but any boost for boys is slight. "It's on the radar, but it's not the driving force in what will get an applicant over the hump," he said. For this year's freshman class, 31% of male applicants were accepted, compared with 25% of women who applied.
Truschke said the school does not make special recruiting efforts for males, but that could change if the female enrollment climbs beyond the current 59%. "We're right on the cusp. If it got to be above 60-40 we'd have to ask ourselves if we need to be more intentional or change recruiting strategies," he said.
Such recruiting is complicated because girls outperform boys in high school. High school boys do score slightly higher on the SAT but more girls have A averages, rank in the top 10% of their class and take more academic courses than boys, according to the College Board.
Researchers are divided about the causes and extent of the college gender gap.
Some say the gap is limited to lower-income students and minorities, with girls from those populations more likely to attend college and boys more likely to go directly to work or the military. Affluent white males are at least as likely to attend college as their female counterparts, according to those experts. Others say the gap crosses race and class lines.
Whatever the case, the highly selective colleges attracting affluent students are also getting more -- and academically stronger -- applications from women than men.