What do Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and four of ten women who served as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (2006) have in common? They are all graduates of women’s colleges. And if you are considering a women’s college, you can join this distinguished group!
History and overview
Women’s colleges have a place in our nation’s history beginning in the early 1800s when an interest in finding additional educational opportunities for women developed. Higher education institutions were few and far between until the mid- and late-19th century when women’s colleges were founded in response to women not being admitted to most all-male institutions.
After World War II, the number of schools increased to meet the demand of rising higher education and in the 1960s and 1970s, several schools that had been all-male opened their doors to women. Interestingly, many women’s colleges either became coeducational themselves, merged with all-male or co-ed schools or closed due to declining enrollment. Some of those that survived became a hotbed for political movements, and therefore the notion that “only a feminist would choose a women’s college” took hold.
Today you will find a whole new world at a women’s college. A 2004 study by the National Survey of Student Engagement showed that the biggest difference between an all-female school and a co-ed campus is “related to experiences with diversity.” The study reported that students at women’s colleges felt more encouraged and supported than their counterparts and that they had a greater understanding of “themselves and others, general education…and desire to contribute to the welfare of the community.” The study concluded that these colleges appear to create a climate where women are able to become involved in aspects of campus life, both in and out of the classroom.
Rachel Gonnering, director of admissions at Mount Mary College (www.mtmary.edu) says, “The dynamic is different at a women’s college. Women’s colleges provide for exceptional support, leadership development and personal and professional growth opportunities. Women who attend women’s colleges tend to be more engaged, more academically-focused and have exceptional success in their careers.”
In the classroom
The reason you are going to college is for an education. Presumably, you will choose a major before you choose a college. Your chosen field may lead you to a women’s college. A higher percentage of students at all-female schools are enrolled in the math, science and engineering programs that are traditionally dominated by men. In 2012, the Girl Scouts of America revealed research that shows women are underrepresented in STEM careers (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Interestingly, employers are vying for women graduating from STEM programs and, overall, women in STEM careers are better compensated than in other fields. To pursue a STEM career on a women’s college campus will provide you with ample opportunities upon graduation.
Hon. Renee Forgensi Minarik, a New York State Court of Claims Judge and a graduate of Wells College (www.wells.edu), said that while she “wasn’t specifically looking at women’s colleges…I loved the campus, the energetic and friendly students and the library building. The women there were very serious about getting an education, all leadership positions were held by women, students weren’t self-conscious…[and] they didn’t hold back in class.”
To Minarik’s point, the National Survey of Student Engagement study also found that women’s colleges offer greater opportunities for and participation in student leadership roles. Student government experience will boost your resume and show potential employers that you can work well with others, deal with adversity and plan events, among other skills.
“At Mount Mary, faculty members have a personal commitment to the students to see them grow as individuals and professionals while they are on campus,” Gonnering also said. “Our professors create a positive environment that helps students gain confidence and find their voice.”
A recent Forbes magazine article regarding the relevancy of an all-female campus mentioned that, “most of these colleges are part of a consortium. Students at Bryn Mawr College (www.brynmawr.edu) outside of Philadelphia, for example, can take classes at nearby co-ed Swarthmore College (www.swarthmore.edu), Haverford College (www.haverford.edu) and the University of Pennsylvania (www.upenn.edu). Wellesley College (www.wellesley.edu) students can cross-register at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (www.mit.edu) or even earn a double degree: a B.A. from Wellesley and an S.B. degree from MIT over the course of five years.” Use the exclusivity of the schools and their partners to your benefit and find a consortium that works well with your goals.
The bottom line
Jane Nordhorn, director of recruitment at Saint Catherine’s University (www.stkate.edu), offers this advice: “Get on campus and visit. Many students are apprehensive about a women’s college thinking they won’t have a social life or have a “normal” college experience. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Our students are engaged socially on campus, with surrounding colleges and the community. One visit will show the vibrant and exciting campus life we have that is paired with excellent academic and internship opportunities.”
Minarik also suggests asking “all the same questions you ask on any college search, [such as] do they have enough courses/professors and the student teacher ratio you want? But also check and see where the alums are now and if they are mentoring current students and recent grads.”
When looking for a college that is the right fit for you, do not limit yourself to a traditional co-ed school. You may find that a women’s college can meet your academic, economic, social needs and so much more.
Kelli O’Connor is a freelance writer based in Rochester, New York.