Why Women’s Colleges (Still) Matter
6:15 pm, August 30th | by Amy Tennery
It’s that time of year again: Freshman settle into their dorms around the country, students tweak their course loads — and experts wonder whether women’s colleges are still relevant. It’s 2012, after all — not 1950!
The latest example of this single-sex education handwringing came from a recent USA Today story that had more than its fair share of scary statistics. Women’s college enrollment has dropped to roughly 86,000, down from 113,000 in 1998, according to National Center for Education Statistics. The numbers are appalling, yes. But should we really give up on women’s colleges?
In the spirit of full disclosure: I am a graduate of a women’s college. And I’m proud to sing the praises of a women’s college education. But if you walked onto my school’s campus when I attended, it likely wouldn’t match what you think a women’s college “should” look like at all. For starters, the vast majority of my classes had men in them, thanks to cross registration. Our dining hall welcomed hundreds of cargo-short-clad dudes from nearby colleges, who eagerly gobbled down our (undeniably superior) tater tots. And our weekly afternoon tea (yes, we had afternoon tea) and rose-cutting garden often attracted men.
I even went to parties. With boys. Cue horror.
Much of this was possible because my school was part of a larger, co-ed consortium. This is not to say my alma mater, Scripps College, doesn’t go to great lengths to retain our identity as a women’s college — our mascot is the Greek goddess Athena, for crying out loud. But the stereotypes of the “all-women, all-the-time education” are simply untrue. And these women’s campuses are worth promoting.
It’s not in your imagination: the number of women’s colleges across the country has dwindled over the last several decades. Some schools close; others choose to bring men into the mix. Neither choice comes without its problems. In 2006, when my mother’s alma mater, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, decided it would soon axe the whole “Woman’s College” thing, some students laid down on campus in protest, with chalk outlining around their bodies. Others put up signs that read “co-ed is a four-letter word.” Let it never be said women don’t know how to protest with gusto.
Randolph-Macon is not alone. In fact, as of 2008, just 60 women’s colleges remained in the U.S., down from around 200, according to NPR. Perhaps, as the Harvard Political Review noted a couple years back, women’s colleges have outlived their original purpose, to provide women the first-class educations they would otherwise have been denied. (Many of the Ivies, for example, didn’t permit female undergrads until the latter half of the 20th century. Columbia University didn’t permit women undergrads until 1983.) But what about the modern reasons for keeping women’s colleges around? If women have the same educational opportunities as men, do we still need all-women’s colleges? In a word, yes.
Consider the numbers on women, business and politics in the U.S. today: Women hold 16.8 percent of the seats in Congress. We hold 17 percent of the seats in the Senate. There have been, in the history of the United States, just 25 female cabinet members, ever, and no female presidents. At last count, women hold just 16.1 percent of the board seats at Fortune 500 companies. As of this week, there are just 19 female CEOs in the Fortune 500. Why are these statistics important for girls and women? Because, as that saying goes, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
But I did see women leaders at Scripps. That’s all I saw everyday.
I saw women deans and a woman president. I saw women at the helm of the student-run coffeehouse. There were women as student body presidents and women as newspaper editors and women as student counselors and women as peer mentors. Sure, there were guys who wandered around campus. But we ran things. For four years I lived in a bubble where there was no such thing as women being underrepresented in power. We grew up seeing that women in power were normal. I loved every minute.
And there’s credible data to back up what, for me, was a gut instinct: For some women, women’s colleges can be a really good thing.
In 2006, the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research found that “students from women’s colleges attain a greater number of prominent leadership positions and more responsibility than women who attend coeducational institutions.” Among the top 50 colleges overall in the U.S., women comprised less than a third of the student body presidents, despite the fact that women have comprised roughly 57 percent of U.S. college students for the last decade. It’s no wonder then, that a disproportionate number of female Congress members are women’s college graduates.
I’m not saying women’s colleges are right for everyone. But when you look at how far women have to come in positions of power — in politics, business and even in STEM careers — it’s easy to make the case for women’s colleges, with a side of afternoon tea.