Spotlight on Women’s Colleges
Most colleges and universities throughout the US are coeducational, allowing men and women to study together on the same campuses. Though this may seem commonplace today, a college education was once a rite of passage reserved only for men.
Prior to the 19th century, girls received very little education beyond basic reading, writing, and mathematics. By the mid to late 1800s, however, education for women vastly improved, and women’s colleges across the country began to flourish. In the 20th century, the women’s rights movement gave women’s colleges new purpose in providing an environment focused on the development of young women leaders in a male-dominated world.
First founded as Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1837, Mount Holyoke College is one of the few early schools for women that survives today after becoming a college in 1888. The first official women’s college was chartered in 1836 as the Georgia Female College, today known as Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia.
Perhaps the most well known of the women’s colleges are the Seven Sisters, a group of women’s colleges designed to mirror the traditionally all-male Ivy League.
The original members of the Seven Sisters are Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Radcliffe College, Smith College, Vassar College, and Wellesley College. Today Radcliffe is now the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and Vassar has been coeducational since 1969.
Today, there are just 47 women’s colleges across the United States, but they remain a strong and competitive option for young women interested in a variety of majors and disciplines.
Though women’s college grads account for only 2% of all female graduates, more than 20% of women serving in Congress and 30% of Business Week’s rising women in Corporate America graduated from a women’s college.
While a coeducational setting may seem more intriguing, there are many benefits to attending a single-sex college.
Studies show that alumnae of women’s colleges are more confident in expressing their ideas both in and out of class, earn better salaries and hold higher leadership positions in their careers. They are also more likely to major in and graduate with degrees in traditionally male disciplines such as economics, science, or mathematics, and are generally happier with their college experiences than students who attend coeducational schools.
Another benefit of attending a women’s college is often times there is the opportunity to expand your studies at a partner school. Five of the original Sister colleges still only accept women, but have fostered unique opportunities with coeducational colleges and universities.
Examples of this arrangement include Barnard’s relationship with Columbia University, Bryn Mawr’s Tri College Consortium with Haverford College and Swarthmore College, and Mount Holyoke and Smith’s involvement in the Five Colleges consortium with Amherst College, Hampshire College, and University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Although women’s colleges may seem a relic from bygone days, the sense of community and support that characterizes these institutions has produced confident, well-prepared graduates. They join the ranks of Gloria Steinem (Smith), Madeleine Albright (Wellesley), Elaine Chao (Mount Holyoke), Hillary Clinton (Wellesley), Meryl Streep (Vassar), Barbara Walters (Sarah Lawrence), and countless others for whom women’s colleges were the first stepping stone toward success. So if you’re looking for a close-knit environment with a history of empowered and successful women, look into some women’s colleges; you just might find your best-fit!