A few weeks ago, I hosted the presidents of three women's colleges in a panel discussion about the future of higher education: Dr. Carine Feyten of Texas Women's University, Dr. Anne Skleder of Brenau University, and Dr. Mary Hinton of Hollins University. It was an engaging, thoughtful conversation from the bird's eye view perspective. While these colleges are bound by the women's college moniker, the conversation that unfolded reveals that women's colleges contain multitudes -- and lessons to learn from in how they continue to foster inclusive, diverse spaces, and adeptly adjust to changes in the educational landscape. You can watch and download our wide-ranging conversation here. And, if you're curious about what a women's college really is in 2021, read on for a snippet from our Women's College Guide (accessible on our Resources page).
Here’s the honest truth: in 2021, women’s colleges don’t have as much in common with each other as they used to. So, writing a guide that attempts to unify them is, well, tricky. They share a moniker, but even that moniker is up for dispute. Not everyone who attends a women’s college is a woman. Some colleges are addressing gender openly in their admissions policies; some are actively anti-trans students in their admissions policies. Some campuses have a more conservative bent; others are hot beds of social justice activism. Some are standalone women’s colleges; others live within broader co-ed institutions. They contain multitudes.
That said, there are a few things that still unite women’s colleges to this day. I’ll address those below as a starting point because their shared histories – being places for women to pursue higher education – do dictate a lot of their present-day realities. But liking one women’s college doesn’t mean you’re going to like all of them. Just because you like University of Michigan doesn’t mean you’ll like all the other schools in the Big 10 (…and I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to like both Michigan and Ohio State anyway).
So, what unifies them? Well, one of the first, most important factors to note about women’s colleges in the United States is that they are all, pretty much universally, small liberal arts colleges (otherwise known as SLACs). So, if you know that you’re looking for the type of education offered by a SLAC, then you can rest assured that you’ll find the same benefits at a women’s college.
But, what if you’re not there yet? Let’s start by going over what SLACs (generally) offer:
- Small to medium size student populations (some have fewer than 1,000 students, some have 1,000-3,000)
- Small class sizes, with the occasional large lecture course
- Lots of personalized attention from professors and campus administrators
- A range of academic majors, from physics to medieval studies and pretty much everything else in between
- A focus on sharpening your reading, writing, and critical thinking skills
And you’ll typically find all of these things at women’s colleges.
In addition to the core elements of a liberal arts college, women’s colleges share a few differentiating factors from your standard SLAC. Though many women’s colleges first admitted only white women, they’ve evolved since the 19th century to be far more inclusive. Now, women’s colleges tend to be more diverse than their liberal arts college counterparts, especially for students of color and non-traditional aged students. Women’s colleges have nearly three times as many students ages 25-65 as co-ed liberal arts colleges (16.6% compared to 6% of the student population), they enroll a higher percentage of students of color (43% compared to 30%), and they educate a higher percentage of low-income students (43% compared to 32%), source here.
But, women’s colleges are not one-size-fits-all. In addition to their identities as SLACs, women’s colleges also have created their own unique identities around a variety of factors, including:
- Gender identity: each has its own policies around who is admitted (and supported) on campus
- Demographics: as noted above, women’s colleges are quite diverse relative to their co-ed counterparts, but each varies in their student breakdown. There are also a number of women’s colleges housed within co-ed universities, so the demographics of the surrounding institution are also important to understand
- Geography: there are women’s colleges located throughout the country, but they also vary in terms of where their students hail from
- Politics and social justice: women’s colleges have long been defined by their activism, but what each campus community engages in (and to what extent) will vary
- Academic programs: they each have their own most popular majors and specialized offerings
- Cross-registration options and even dual-degree programs at other (often co-ed) campuses
- Master’s programs: some have them, some don’t, but post-graduate programs at women’s colleges are generally co-ed
- History: each campus has its own story and how they tell and celebrate their histories varies
- Religious affiliation: some women’s colleges used to be religiously affiliated, and some still are (as some examples, Stern College of Yeshiva University is Jewish-affiliated; Judson College in Alabama is a Christian college; and Alverno College is a Catholic, Franciscan college)
- Traditions: from high teas to class tree days, women’s colleges often have an appreciation for the legacy of women who have come before them
Further in the guide, you’ll read more about some of the biggest differentiators between women’s colleges today: admissions policies, politics and social justice, and academic programs. But as with all college research, I recommend first asking good questions – both of yourself and of these schools – to determine which ones are a good fit for you (and make sure to head to page 12 of the guide to read through the questions!).
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