By Scott Sager
Not long ago I traveled to Massachusetts with my daughter, a high school senior in the thick of the college application process, for her first on-campus interview.
The picturesque Mt. Holyoke College campus in the full bloom of summer was a spectacular sight. Like many smaller schools, the 178 year old institution is off the beaten track, in a wooded, hilltop setting where gracious historic and modern buildings share paths along lawns and lakes.
Mt. Holyoke is also one of the oldest women’s colleges in the United States and one of at least two women’s colleges currently on my daughter’s list.
As we went along the tour, I wondered if she should be considering schools with no men. Were they limiting in some way or do they offer less of something?
“Every young woman should consider a women’s college,” Audrey Smith, Vice President for Enrollment at Smith College, another successful and prestigious college for women, says without hesitation. “Not every young woman should go to a women’s college but every young woman should explore the option.”
My daughter thinks about schools in many ways – size, curriculum, location and student life – and has decided to look for a college that’s small but not tiny, has good science and math offerings, an active student body and is not in a large city. All this makes sense to me, but why a women’s college?
From a high of around 300 schools in the 1960’s, today there are 42 four-year women’s colleges in North America conferring 1% of the degrees awarded each year. With a long and storied history, schools exclusively for women were the only educational option through the mid-nineteenth century when coeducation began to take hold. As public universities were formed, often under federal land grant programs, these schools typically educated men and women together, while most private schools, including the majority of liberal arts colleges and universities, remained single sex until the 1970’s.
By 2010, women earned the majority of degrees awarded in the United States at every level of higher education, associate to doctorate, in every racial/ethnic group identified, the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics shows. By the broadest measures, women are accessing educational opportunities at high rates, so single sex education may seem unnecessary.
Looking more closely, though, some gaps appear. While women earn more higher education degrees than men overall, this isn’t true in every area. In the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, women still represent only about a third of students. Another example is MBA programs, which continue to enroll more men than women.
Women’s colleges have a consistent and outstanding record of preparing students for work and graduate school that equals or surpasses even the most elite coed schools. As a group, half of all graduates of women’s colleges earn a graduate degree compared to a third or less of graduates from coed institutions. In a broad study by the Women’s College Coalition, alumnae of women’s colleges were more satisfied with and felt better prepared by their educations. The disparity is greatest when comparing these women with female graduates of large, public universities.
As Ms. Smith puts it, “Women’s colleges are committed to the success of women.” They are institutions that excel at educating women in the sciences, provide women with global opportunities and connect graduates with a powerful and extensive network of professional women.
In the absence of men, women hold all leadership positions on campus, have all the athletics and arts open to them, fill all lab and research opportunities with faculty, and have complete access to professors.
Further, as campus safety continues to receive greater scrutiny, women’s colleges are safer than coed schools. “Unfortunately, we are not immune but students are educated about issues and are prepared to act responsibly,” reports Ms. Smith, leading to less intimate partner violence and students who feel notably safer at their schools than women on coed campuses.
This doesn’t mean there are no men around. Today, virtually all women’s colleges have formal relationships with all-male or coed institutions. Wellesley College permits cross-registration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Smith and Mt. Holyoke Colleges participate in the Five College Consortium with Amherst and Hampshire Colleges and the University of Massachusetts; Spelman College is part of the Atlanta University Center Consortium; Scripps College is one of the five Claremont Colleges. These connections to other schools give students at women’s colleges access to academic as well as cultural and social events and programs on other campuses.
Women’s colleges sound like amazing places with unique opportunities, but if they aren’t right for every student, what makes for a good fit? “Women who want to have an active role in their education, who want to shape who they are going to become and develop their voice,” summarizes Ms. Smith.
Research confirms that alumnae are more likely to graduate in four years, be satisfied with their education, to have majored in non-traditional fields and to express higher levels of self-esteem and leadership skills than their female counterparts at coed schools. While studies are unclear if the women who choose these schools walk in the door as “achievers” or the schools shape them, it is clear that alumnae believe their experience at a women’s college helped them attain their potential.
After her interview, my daughter and I walked around the campus a few more minutes and grabbed a snack at a local deli. Sitting outside on that beautiful day, she told me the visit was worth it and that now, she could really see herself attending Mt. Holyoke. It occurred to me, understanding all that a women’s college has to offer, I can really see her there too.
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