Women’s Colleges Remain a Viable Option
Meryl Streep is regarded by many as the greatest movie actress performing today. Starring in films such as Mamma Mia! and The Devil Wears Prada she has two Academy Awards under her belt amid 15 nominations. In her newest movie Julie and Julia she takes on the role of Julia Child one of the most well known female chefs (not to mention one of the biggest personalities).
Coincidentally Meryl and Julia have something else in common along with quite a few other famous women-including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton journalist and TV personality Barbara Walters author and Pulitzer Prize winner Anna Quindlen and Kay Krill the CEO of Ann Taylor.
All of these successful and influential women hail from women’s colleges and universities. Though mistakenly regarded by some as outdated the demand for all-female colleges remains strong and the benefits numerous.
Women’s Colleges 101
Women’s colleges were founded in the mid-1800s to prepare girls for their future roles as wives and mothers. Young women who enrolled in some of these early schools studied dancing literature singing and religion. Other women’s colleges began as female seminaries that trained women to become teachers while a smaller number of schools matched men’s colleges in the strength of their academics. At these schools women could study science philosophy math and law.
Over the years many of the original women’s colleges have either merged with other schools or started admitting men. But despite the fact that the number of all-women’s colleges in the United States peaked in the 1960s nearly 50 of them remain today.
Dispelling the Myths
Unfortunately due in part to their origins women’s colleges still contend with misperceptions and stereotypes. “Some people perceive us as a finishing school for ‘rich white girls’,” says Ken Huus dean of admissions at Sweet Briar College. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. Students have the full college experience here from serious academics to extracurriculars to social activities.”
Carol Ann Mooney president of Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame IN and vice-chair of the Women’s College Coalition Board of Directors agrees. “There are some who might say women’s colleges are stuck in a time warp and irrelevant for today’s challenging and global world,” she says. “Quite the reverse is true. Women’s college graduates are better prepared to lead and compete because everything we do is focused on educating women.”
Still others view women’s colleges as isolating sequestering women away from men and the “real world” says Jeff Hodges director of public relations at Hollins University. He counters “After four years of running the student government publishing the student newspaper … and speaking up in class [our students] emerge more confident in their ability to excel on the job or in graduate school.”
The myths are many but so are the benefits of an all-female education. “Here students are in a place that’s completely dedicated to their learning and growth as young women,” says Huus. “Classrooms are organized in a seminar style to allow for discussions that suit the way in which women work and learn best. The machines at the gym are sized for women not men. Everything is designed with young women in mind.”
At women’s colleges students also have more opportunities to lead. “If there is a student initiative every facet of it will be planned organized and executed by women- that alone is fundamental and important,” says Mooney.
Anne Skleder dean of Chatham College for Women at Chatham University adds “At a women’s college everyone- from faculty to student affairs staff to coaches-have as their mission educating women for leadership in their professions and their communities and for success in their personal lives.”
The National Survey of Student Engagement reports that students who attend a women’s college are more likely to obtain doctoral degrees and earn more money after graduation. Additionally according to a March 2009 U.S. News and World Report article women’s colleges operating today are “among the country’s more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse liberal arts colleges offering generous financial aid packages”-particularly important in today’s economy.
Is a Women’s College Right for You?
The best way to determine whether or not a women’s college is a good fit for you is simply to visit one.
“I always advise high school students to consider many different kinds of colleges,” says Katherine Knapp Watts dean of admissions and financial aid at Salem College. “The best way to evaluate whether or not a women’s college (or any college) is the right fit is to visit college campuses attend classes and talk with students faculty and admissions counselors.”
You should also take into account the qualities you’d like to develop while in college. “If a young woman responds well to being mentored encouraged and even pushed to exceed her goals a women’s college would be a great choice,” says Watts.
Women’s colleges may offer certain advantages and opportunities that coed institutions don’t. While some schools provide courses that focus on women’s contributions in history and society others offer formalized leadership programs or certificates.
At Salem College for example the Center for Women Writers features celebrated women authors who speak to students and conduct master classes according to Watts. The college also houses the Women in Science and Math Program which is “designed to offer academic and career support for Salem students interested in science and mathematics.”
Says Skleder students at Chatham College for Women can take advantage of the Pennsylvania Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy which aims to increase women’s political participation and advocacy or the Rachel Carson Center which focuses on environmental sustainability.
No matter the academic offerings an all female education is distinctive in and of itself. “The true uniqueness in our classes is the collaborative approach to teaching and learning that takes place in our small classroom environment,” says Mooney.
Confidence leadership rigorous academics-it sounds great right? But where do boys fit into the picture? And what’s the social scene like? If these details are among your concerns you can rest easy.
Men and women often take classes together even while attending separate schools. “Most women’s colleges offer co-curricular and extracurricular experiences at local coeducational institutions,” says Mooney. For example Saint Mary’s students can take classes at the nearby University of Notre Dame.
Though young men can often be found on the campuses of women’s colleges socializing informally or in groups many schools also host coed activities throughout the year Hodges says. At Hollins for example the Activities Board presents Fall Party Fall Formal Mayfest Spring Cotillion and an ongoing cycle of live music performances.
Aside from commingling with coed schools social life at a women’s college chiefly centers on female friendships. “Students and alumnae from women’s colleges report having deep lifelong friendships not only among their peers but also across generations,” says Marilyn Hammond communications manager at Agnes Scott College.
Whether or not you decide that a women’s college is right for you don’t immediately dismiss the possibility based on some false perceptions. An open mind- enriched by an exceptional all-female education-could land you exactly where you want to be.