Area colleges and universities, reacting to a federal civil rights agency's investigation into possible discrimination against women in admissions, said Thursday that gender is only one factor in determining the makeup of each year's freshman class.

The Commission on Civil Rights voted earlier this week to subpoena admissions data from almost 20 colleges and universities, including six in Maryland, in an investigation of whether they are admitting men at higher rates than women and offering them more generous aid packages.

Women now outnumber men nearly 60 percent to 40 percent in higher education nationally, and the issue of whether colleges should maintain an even balance of genders has been debated on college campuses recently. The probe grew out of anecdotal stories that admissions officials are discriminating against women to promote a more even gender mix, said a commission spokeswoman, Lenore Ostrowsky.

Commission members voted Wednesday to authorize subpoenas for 19 universities within a 100-mile radius of where the commission meets in Washington - the geographical extent of their subpoena authority. The schools were chosen because they represent a mixture of sizes and include public, private, religious, secular, historically black and moderately selective to highly selective institutions.

The six Maryland colleges are: the Johns Hopkins University; Goucher College; Loyola University Maryland; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; the University of Maryland Eastern Shore; and Washington College in Chestertown.

Representatives of several of the colleges said they have not received the subpoenas yet but that they intend to cooperate.

College admissions officers said the grade point average and test scores of applicants are more important than gender in determining admissions.

When asked if the University of Maryland, College Park, which is not involved in the subpoena request, would admit a less-qualified male over a woman, director of undergraduate admissions Shannon Gundy said, "Absolutely not." There are 26 factors that are considered, she said. "Gender is one of those factors. ... It is seldom a factor that is given much consideration."

The state's flagship campus, she said, generally attracts boys who have test scores that are stronger than girls' and girls who have better academic records than boys.

Sheldon Steinbach, former general counsel of the American Council of Education, said most "fair-minded admissions" counselors focus on high GPA and test scores first.

But Steinbach acknowledged that gender is an issue. "Do schools wish to maintain some semblance of gender balance? I think many of them do, not for any sinister reason," he said.

The balance has been particularly crucial for small liberal arts colleges, he said, that women are more often attracted to. He said one small Northeastern college that only began accepting women in the 1970s is now struggling to keep it from becoming too heavily female.

"Concern has arisen about what happens to an institution which had been an even gender-balanced institution," he said.

Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea said the university, which has an almost 50-50 male-female balance in first-year students this fall, does not release its rates of admissions based on any criteria, whether it is gender or race.

UMBC said it doesn't consider gender in admissions and is working to recruit more female applicants, particularly in engineering. "We definitely don't consider gender in the admissions. We are trying to be more strategic in our recruitment efforts," said Yvette Mozie-Ross, assistant provost for enrollment management at UMBC. But "at the admissions review stage, it is strictly academic credentials."

American University, which is not on the list of 19 schools to be subpoenaed, is comfortable with its balance of 60 percent women, said Sharon Alston, executive director for enrollment management.

"We don't look at gender at all. We have embraced our male/female ratio. We are looking at who will contribute to the university and that is the priority for us," she said.

The problem has evolved because more girls are graduating from high school than boys and often the girls have higher academic credentials than boys.

Steinbach said that the commission has no power to change the situation, even if it determines that there is gender bias.

"This is purely an investigative body that can make recommendations that might lead to some legislation down the road," he said.

Ostrowsky said if all schools cooperate and comply swiftly with the subpoenas, the agency could have a report out in six months. But some schools may not be able to produce the data quickly. Ostrowsky would not specify what the subpoenas will request.

Besides the six colleges in Maryland, there are five in Pennsylvania, three in Washington, two each in Virginia and Delaware, and one in West Virginia.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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