Still Standing: WHY WOMEN’S COLLEGES AREN’T GOING AWAY.

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When Sweet Briar College announced last March that it would shut its doors after more than 100 years of educating women, the news sent shock waves through the world of higher education. As surprised alumnae reeled, college officials pointed to a declining interest in its model—liberal arts focused, single–sex, and rural—as a trend they considered irreversible.

The announcement raised some thorny questions for women’s colleges. If a well-known institution with a decent endowment could not survive, would others follow? Could small liberal arts colleges weather the current economic environment? And in the 21st century, when the doors to most colleges and universities are open to both women and men, what particular benefits do women’s colleges even offer?

When the first U.S. women’s colleges were founded in the 19th and early 20th centuries, women were denied entry to many of the country’s private universities. The Seven Sisters grew in response to the Ivy League schools, which were all male until the 1960s and 70s. Ellen Browning Scripps, who founded Scripps College in 1926, could get a certificate but not a degree when she attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, because she was a woman.

At their height, there were 230 women’s colleges in the United States. Through mergers, going coed, or closing, the number is now down to 42. Not only can women pursue advanced degrees at most higher education institutions, they now make up the majority of college students, and so women’s colleges have had to grapple with questions about their relevancy. As Sweet Briar alumnae were gearing up to fight a court challenge to keep their alma mater open—a fight that was later victorious—leaders and supporters were also having to make a public case for women’s colleges and the benefits they offer students and society.

The white gloves were off. But as anyone familiar with women’s colleges can tell you, white gloves and other genteel images are relics of a time long past.

Today’s women’s colleges are serving a widening group of students and responding to 21st–century issues. Their students are more racially and ethnically diverse than those attending coeducational institutions (six of the top 25 of U.S. News and World Report’s most ethnically diverse national liberal arts colleges are women’s colleges, including Scripps), and women’s colleges now enroll more low-income students than coed institutions. They are also institutions that place special focus on women’s leadership and student activism. And the reach of women’s colleges goes beyond the U.S. border, because these institutions are educating women from abroad who go on to be leaders in their home countries.

“I think women’s colleges are more relevant than ever before,” says Michele Ozumba, president of the Women’s College Coalition, which represents the 42 women’s colleges in the United States. Even as women have more educational choices, fields such as science and
technology are still dominated by men. Pay is still not equal. Women’s colleges, dedicated to ridding the classroom of gender stereotypes and encouraging women to reach their full potential, no matter the field, have a role to play in the ongoing fight for gender equity.

Alumnae rate their educational experience at women’s colleges higher than their coed counterparts, according to a 2011 survey done for the Women’s College Coalition. In reflecting on their experiences, they describe a supportive environment of high expectations that encourages exploration and bolsters confidence—a community of strong women who speak their minds and want to see each other succeed. That community of support stretches out long after graduation, as women’s college graduates go on to take prominent roles in society. Generations of successful alumnae are serving in Congress and in the Cabinet, leading companies and colleges, and occupying prominent spots in the media.

No doubt women’s colleges are doing important work. But higher education is undergoing major shifts as it grapples with changing student demographics, concerns about affordability and stagnant family incomes, the availability of online education, and a push toward choosing schools and majors with a professional tract that parents and students believe may be more likely to lead to a job after graduation.

There is no question that colleges must be competitive to survive. In a time when many small colleges face enrollment challenges—and for institutions dependent on tuition, enrollment makes or breaks them—enrollment in women’s colleges decreased slightly from 2004 to 2012, according to federal data compiled by the Women’s College
Coalition. The number of women accepted who decided to enrol —known as yield—declined, too. At the same time, there is still strong interest in women’s colleges—applications went up 53 percent from 2004 to 2012, according to coalition data.

Scripps and women’s colleges like it—those that share partnerships with coed institutions, are highly ranked for academics, have strong reputations, and are located in desirable metropolitan areas and parts of the country—are in a strong position. Scripps especially has something distinctive to offer, with its place in The Claremont Colleges and in Southern California, and its Interdisciplinary Humanities Core Curriculum. Students recognize that, and both applications and enrollment have continued to increase in recent years.

For other institutions, the situation is more mixed. In May, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, a small college in rural Indiana, was the latest women’s college to announce it would go coed. In a news release, the college president said that while there is no doubt of the power of a single-sex education, the fact that few women are willing to consider it “hinders its relevance in today’s world.”

Ozumba sees this as a positioning challenge—a need to articulate the value of the single-sex college experience to 17-year-olds who might not know the important work these institutions are doing and the distinctive experience they offer.

In addition, many women’s colleges are adding leadership or professional programs or graduate schools. Agnes Scott College in Atlanta is offering each student a leadership program that includes a team of academic and professional mentors. At Scripps, the new LASPA Center for Leadership was created to help students develop the leadership skills they need in the 21st century through internships and interactions with leaders across professions. Mary Baldwin College, which, like Sweet Briar, is located in Virginia, offers a nursing degree, a college of education, and adult degree programs for men and women, in addition to its women-only undergraduate college.

Scripps College alumna Andrea Jarrell ’84 has had the opportunity to see both sides of the question about the future of singlesex colleges.

As a proud Scripps graduate, she recognizes the deep value of her women’s college education. Yet in her professional role as a communication strategist who works with colleges and universities, she knows that if an institution does not have a key selling point—say, being part of the Claremont Consortium—or specialized mission, they will continue to flag. Some may disappear.

The no. 1 thing students consider when choosing a college is academic excellence, Jarrell says, and Scripps is in a strong position. In addition to a healthy endowment and a very desirable location both in Southern California and within the consortium, it has an accomplished faculty and a rigorous Interdisciplinary Humanities Core Curriculum that emphasizes interdisciplinary studies. “Scripps produces these thinkers who connect the dots,” she says.

Jarrell, who grew up in Los Angeles, chose to attend a women’s college because her best friend’s mother had gone to Barnard College. She chose Scripps instead of Barnard because she wasn’t yet ready to go that far away (infused with confidence after graduation, Jarrell moved to New York and now lives in the Washington, D.C., area). She knows that many women who enroll at women’s colleges didn’t set out to go to one—a college counselor or family friend often warms them to the idea. Even with their records of success, women’s colleges are not being sought out as much as they should be, in Jarrell’s opinion. Her daughter, now a college junior, strongly considered attending a women’s college and was deciding between Bryn Mawr and the University of Puget Sound. She ended up going west to Puget Sound.

For Jarrell, her years at Scripps gave her the time and space to develop her confidence, something that she thinks might not have happened so early if she had enrolled elsewhere. She later returned to Scripps to work as the director of public relations and development before starting her business. “Scripps totally changed my life,” Jarrell says. “I found my voice in a more powerful way.”

Some of the happiest students at Scripps didn’t set out to attend a women’s college.

During her college search, Mary-Catherine Riley ’18 of Arlington, Virginia, focused on equestrian programs and a location beyond the East Coast, said her parents H. Mac and Michele-Anne Riley. No one from her high school had gone to Scripps.

But attending an accepted-students weekend at Scripps sealed her decision. She called her father early the next morning to say she had to go there. He recalls his normally reserved daughter getting teary eyed at a presentation. After she returned home from her first year, her father asked her about that moment. She recalled it was the first time she had ever watched an assembly of such powerful, smart women own the entire stage, a cathartic experience for her.

The spirit of that forum was what his daughter was immersed during her first year, Mac Riley said. “It’s not a one-shot deal at Scripps. It’s not a put-on, it’s what happens every day in the education of a Scripps student.”

The Rileys have become big supporters of the Scripps experience, even playing videos of Scripps commencement speakers to friends as a way to explain why their daughter is going to school 3,000 miles away. The liberal arts focus and the supportive, empowering environment has had a “breathtakingly positive impact” on their daughter, Mac Riley says. She is now considering a double major in international relations and economics.

“Even though an all-women’s college was not in her original plan, it turned out to be one of the best environments for our daughter to grow,” says Michele-Anne Riley, citing in particular how her daughter has learned to confidently express herself.

Isabel Smith ’16 was also looking at coed institutions during her college search—despite coming from four generations of women’s college graduates. She was drawn to coed schools because she was worried she wouldn’t have male friends, she said. She was in Claremont visiting Pitzer College when a family friend suggested she check out Scripps. When she took a tour, she described herself as blown away.

What stood out to Smith were Scripps’ academics and the focus on engagement. When it came time to apply, “I realized Scripps was the best fit for me,” Smith said. But until she got to campus for her first year, she was still nervous about attending a single-sex institution.

It was a different experience than when her mother, Priscilla Painton, executive editor of nonfiction at Simon and Schuster, chose a college. Growing up in France and not knowing much about the American college landscape, Painton says her mother gave her two choices: Smith or Mount Holyoke. She chose Mount Holyoke, where her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother had all attended.

The women’s college experience served her well. It prepared her to be able to speak up in all-male environments and be comfortable doing so. When she became deputy editor of Time magazine, she knew how to use her voice and stand up for what she believed in. (She later returned to teach at Mount Holyoke.)

“That was the argument that my mother used to make,” Painton says. “If you go to a women’s college, you are more likely to speak up and think your opinion matters.”

Though the world has changed since she was a student, Painton insists “there is still a value in women’s colleges.” And it’s clear that Smith agrees.

“When I got there, everything about the women’s college aspect was wonderful,” Smith said. Being a part of a community of strong women made her feel confident. Her classes opened her eyes to gender stereotyping in the media and in public discourse, and made her conscious of the influences of patriarchy. She had always considered herself a feminist, but being in the Scripps environment encouraged her to examine what that really meant.

Smith is spending her second summer working for a New York City council member and considering running for office one day. While she feels she stumbled into attending a women’s college, “I really wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Immediately it just shifted my entire identity as a woman,” Smith said. “In two months, my entire worldview changed.

Women’s colleges and their students are continuing to evolve. Their alumnae represent that evolution, from women who did not have a choice of colleges to those who did, but still picked allwomen’s schools for an empowering experience. They are all part of the history and life of Scripps College, as are the current students tackling the social issues of the 21st century.

It’s an interesting time, says Jarrell, the higher education communications expert. Women’s colleges have evolved tremendously over the past 100 years and will continue to do so. Now, Scripps and other women’s colleges are continuing to evolve by opening their admissions to transgender students and looking to embrace a spectrum of genders.

What will these colleges look like in future years? “I don’t think it’s settled,” Jarrell says.

Not everyone is sure what the admissions changes and the inclusion of transgender students will mean. A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal from a Barnard student argued against transgender inclusive admissions policies. At the end, the writer asked, “Given the 80 percent decline in women’s colleges over the past half century, why undermine the only selling point you’ve got left?”

Amy Drayer ’99 doesn’t believe a change in admissions policy will undermine Scripps’ strengths. But she isn’t sure making space for transgender students will preserve its position as a women’s college. She was part of a group of alumnae who urged the trustees to take caution in considering the new admissions policy.

“Scripps College will thrive,” she said. “Survival isn’t an issue, but we will change. The College will change.”

Imagining a different world is part of the value of women’s colleges, says Andrea Gutierrez ’04, who works in coed higher education in California and says she came to appreciate her single-sex educational experience more after graduation, when she and her classmates moved into leadership positions in their various fields.

“I think the whole point is you’re there because you’re trying to create something new,” says Gutierrez, who plays pick-up soccer with a league that believes “to change the world, we have to change the way we play.” Rather than trying to fit into the current system, Scripps is a place where students can imagine another more inclusive and equal paradigm.

BY KATHRYN MASTERSON

 

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