Women-Only Colleges Reign Supreme
Four key elements to their successes
By: Wendy B. Libby
Stephens College is 175 years old this year. Think for a minute about what that means. Founded in 1833, we are the second-oldest women’s institution in the United States. Through Stephens, the concept of women’s higher education has been around longer than moving pictures. Stephens’ forerunner, the Columbia Female Academy, was educating women before milk was pasteurized, before the Wright brothers were even born – let alone in flight – and before women gained the right to vote.
Novelist Edith Wharton says this about walking long on the Earth: “In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”
What a great way to describe our women’s college, where we are celebrating our “quartoseptcentennial” all year long. Toward these goals, we invited one of the world’s leading “eco-heroes,” journalist and women’s college graduate Simran Sethi, to campus as part of Women’s History Month. This comes on the heels of the work our students are doing in Recyclemania and the Kill-a-Watt program, initiatives aimed at reducing consumption, recycling goods and being cognizant of how our choices might either positively or negatively affect our environment.
Regardless of whether we are talking about making Earth a more long-term hospitable place for life forms as we know them or some other particular topic, you can expect to find emerging from women’s colleges a great many leaders and change-makers, thinkers and communicators, intelligent and invested women with a mission. As Susan Lennon, executive director of the Women’s College Coalition, says, what defines a women’s college is its pedagogy and environment and not the fact that we enroll women.
The value of the special community and classroom environment at Stephens resonates well with the results of the recently released study commissioned by the coalition and conducted by Hardwick-Day. The study surveyed women who graduated between 1970 and 1997 from women’s colleges, private colleges and flagship public universities. The research uncovered distinct differences among the groups that demonstrate the advantages women derive from the women’s college environment that women at other institutions simply don’t experience.
The Hardwick-Day study points to four key elements, making the case for the effectiveness of women’s colleges:
– Women’s colleges help students think analytically, bring social and historical perspective to issues, work as part of a team, write and speak effectively, make solid decisions, gain entry to a career, prepare for career change or advancement, and be politically or socially aware. For instance, 62 percent of women’s college graduates say their college helped them learn to develop self- confidence and initiative; 42 percent of liberal arts college graduates and 41 percent of flagship public graduates said the same.
– Women’s colleges create leaders, communicators and persuaders. Alumnae report more in-class experience making presentations and are more likely to gain leadership experience in student government. Forty-eight percent of women’s college graduates say their college helped them become a leader; 30 percent of liberal arts alumnae and 19 percent of flagship public alumnae responded similarly.
– Women’s colleges engage students with top faculty and resources. They offer small classes – at Stephens we coach more than we teach – interaction with professors, and resources focused on and available to female students. Seventy four percent of women’s college graduates said they personally benefited from a “high quality teaching-oriented faculty”; 64 percent of liberal arts college alumnae and 35 percent of flagship public alumnae said the same.
– Women’s colleges prove their value over a lifetime. Alumnae are more likely to attain a graduate degree and enter a range of career fields regardless of their major. More than 95 percent of women’s college alumnae believe the financial investment in their education was worthwhile and that the intellectual and personal capacities they gained are still extremely important to them.
This information only reinforces what those of us at women’s colleges have observed and facilitated for decades.
So why is it, given evidence of the effectiveness of women’s colleges from their graduates themselves, that so few high-school age women consider attending a women’s college? And how can we encourage them to strike out and try something different when their choice might go against the expectations of their peers and families?
As parents and a society, we owe it to our young women to help them dispel the stereotypes built up around women’s colleges for too long – stereotypes that allow us to dismiss women’s colleges out of hand before they have a chance of making a student’s Internet search or visit list for consideration. I encourage families to go to www.womenscolleges.org to view the results of the Hardwick-Day study. Do the research. Visit a women’s college campus. See for yourself what she might be missing.
There’s a reason why women’s college alumnae love their alma maters and why women’s colleges like Stephens are celebrating quartoseptcentennials.
Wendy B. Libby is president of Stephens College and treasurer of the Women’s College Coalition.