When we last updated this guide – back in ye olden days of February 2016 – the stories about women’s colleges had a flavor of panic tinged with nostalgia. In 2013, Sweet Briar College had announced it would be closing its doors at the end of that academic year. While the story ended on a hopeful note (alumnae rallied to keep the college open), a series of op-eds followed, hinging on the central question: were women’s colleges still relevant?
Interestingly, from 2016 through 2019, many women’s colleges then saw a surge in applicants. Admissions directors, college counselors, and journalists have tried to put a finger on what prompted the surge – a change in political climate, the rise of the #MeToo movement, or evolving attitudes toward feminism and gender-inclusive spaces and communities (I’d like to think it was 100% due to this guide, but that perhaps only accounted for 95% of the surge).
In all likelihood, it was a perfect storm of moments that led to this: a moment when women’s colleges were not merely relevant – they were popular. But internally, women’s colleges continued to grapple with questions of identity. Specifically, who were women’s colleges for?
At the time of this update, we’re also in the midst of yet another rollercoaster for higher education: the COVID-19 pandemic. And while the pandemic is (sigh, yes, this word) unprecedented, the recession we’ve entered into is not. As we’ve seen in previous recessions, economic uncertainty disproportionately impacts small, regional 4-year colleges who serve mostly local populations. And aside from the handful of highly selective women’s colleges, most women’s colleges today are regional institutions.
While all colleges are struggling with tuition shortfalls, what they choose to do in the face of such a crisis will vary, as it always has. In the face of the pandemic, Converse College in South Carolina expanded to become a fully co-ed institution, while maintaining a Converse College for Women within their institution, so they could open their doors to more local students (similar to the structures of Mary Baldwin and Brenau Colleges for Women). It’s possible many women’s colleges in this guide will change their admissions policies or the make-up of their campuses to stay afloat. When we first wrote this guide in 2013, there were 47 women’s colleges in the US. Today, 37 have remained open and function as women’s colleges.
The current iteration of this guide reflects not so much an update as an overhaul. The changes reflected here aren’t just due to societal changes in the landscape of higher education (most notably the changing policies around trans and non-binary students at women’s colleges). The changes also reflect the realities I didn’t know or notice eight years ago – how I’d erased the history of co-ed colleges who admitted Black women before the first women’s colleges did, and how women’s colleges weren’t historically as inclusive as they are perceived to be. The latest version of this guide works to address those shifts and better reveal those truths.
As this guide illuminates, women’s colleges are united by a few core elements: they tend to be small liberal arts colleges, and they historically serve students who are women. But, that latter element – serving students who identify as women – has been in flux recently. As conversations around gender have evolved on the national stage, it’s put a spotlight on institutions historically defined by gender. Put simply: how will women’s colleges continue to define themselves?
Given that so much has changed in the last few years around gender-based admissions policies, I’ve updated this guide to speak to those changes broadly. Frankly, all earlier versions of this guide were woefully lacking in a more nuanced understanding of gender. How colleges have evolved in recent years, especially around gender and sex, speaks to both their respective histories and their futures. It’s up to our students to decide how they might fit into that evolution.
My continued hope is that this guide can help students navigate the evolving landscape of women’s colleges, to understand if one is right for them, and – if they choose to apply – to do so with clarity and purpose.
You can now download and read our updated Guide to Women's Colleges here. Happy reading!
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