In March 2015, Sweet Briar College, a liberal arts school in rural Sweet Briar, Virginia, announced that it would close, marking another loss in the world of women’s-only colleges. Fifty years ago, there were 230 women’s-only colleges in the U.S., according to the Women’s College Coalition, an association for women’s-only colleges. After years of closure, mergers, and conversion to co-educational institutions, there are roughly 40 such institutions left.
That’s a remarkable decline. However, within the ranks of those remaining, there are signs of life. At Barnard College in New York City, for example, applications for the class of 2019 hit a record-breaking 6,655, up 17% over the previous year. Over the past 10 years, Barnard’s applications are up roughly 45%, says college president Debora Spar, Ph.D.
“Barnard doesn’t have some of the challenges that some women’s colleges have, since we’re In New York City and so enmeshed with Columbia,” she says. Barnard’s location gives the students the social, career, and other benefits of an urban college that is virtually blended with a co-educational counterpart, while allowing them to choose classes where other women fill the seats, explains Spar.
Beyond big-name institutions like Barnard, Kristen Renn, Ph.D., believes that women’s colleges still fulfill an important role. A professor of higher education at Michigan State University, where her research and teaching focus on diversity in higher education, she says this is particularly true in helping women achieve in areas where they are typically underrepresented, such as in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers.
Renn points to a 2013 paper published by the American Institute of Physics that showed women in single-sex colleges significantly outperformed women at coeducational institutions in a study completed by researchers at Miami University and Indiana University. And while it’s true that women’s colleges have declined in their ranks, she says that this is more a problem of small, remote liberal arts colleges overall than just a women’s college issue.
“Pound for pound, [women’s colleges] outproduce their peer institutions for women in some of the nongender traditional fields, as well as women who go on to graduate school in all kinds of fields,” she says. A 2014 report by the Women’s College Coalition, a membership organization of women’s-only, post-secondary education institutions, found that women’s colleges have slightly higher retention rates than their coeducational counterparts.
Renn says that women’s colleges can provide environments where women are encouraged to be leaders, because all leadership positions are held by women within the student body instead of competing with men. Additionally, women’s colleges attract international students whose families are more comfortable sending their daughters to women’s-only schools.
When university president Pat McGuire started working at Washington, D.C.-based Trinity Washington University in 1989, it had 300 traditional-age students and a weekend college that included roughly 500 adult working women. Today, the institution has more than 1,000 students and roughly 2,500 students altogether in five academic schools.
Trinity’s growth has come from years of responding to market needs, McGuire says. The institution transitioned to a university in 2004, and added nursing and business schools to create more job-ready education options for students and diversify its revenue streams. The university also continues to hold classes six days per week, as well as daytime and evening weekday options, to allow more flexibility for students who work or have caretaking responsibilities. Trinity began to offer graduate and professional education programs.
McGuire says that Trinity also took a hard look at where its students were coming from, and refocused on the reason it was founded: to give women access to college. Based on that, it changed its recruitment strategy.
“We had to think deeply about what our job was, and the job was not to go out and find elite students so we could live an easy life. The job was to go out and find students who needed us very much who, with a good deal of struggle and hard work, could be successful. They are out there by the thousands, actually,” she says.
Marilyn Hammond, Women’s College Coalition president, says that kind of diversification and market responsiveness represent how many women’s colleges are remaining competitive and attracting both traditional and nontraditional students. Bay Path University has developed an online accredited degree program for women.
To differentiate itself from other colleges and universities, Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, has launched Summit, an individualized four-year program completed by all students that emphasizes global learning and leadership. Russell Sage College in Albany, New York, offers an accelerated bachelor’s degree program, which lets high-achieving students complete their degree in just three years. They’re different approaches, but in keeping with the strengths of each institution, Hammond says.
“What an individual institution should do really depends on their own history, their own DNA, if you will. There’s not necessarily one answer that, if all small colleges did this, this is what would be the key to success,” she says. But by building on existing strengths, recruiting the right students, and creating programs that serve market needs, women’s colleges can remain competitive and serve the communities who need them, she says.