The Changing Face of Women's Colleges

An all-female cadet corps and support for students who are mothers show women's colleges' new appeal.

Teenagers in the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted enjoy ice cream on the dining hall terrace at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia.

Teenagers in the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted enjoy ice cream on the dining hall terrace at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia.

By + More

When it opens its admissions to men this fall, Pennsylvania's Rosemont College will become the latest in a long line of former women's colleges to either go coeducational or shutter their doors. According to one study, just 3 percent of collegebound women will even consider attending a women's college. Yet on many traditional coed campuses across the country, female students outnumber their male peers.

Some argue that this combination of factors demonstrates that women's colleges are obsolete, but Pat McGuire, who has served for 20 years as president of Trinity Washington University and its women's college, thinks otherwise. McGuire says she has watched Trinity (in the District of Columbia) transform during her tenure and looks no further than the admissions essays written by prospective students as a reminder of why women's colleges still exist and whom they are serving. "Where I come from," one applicant wrote, "based on stereotypes, the typical thing for me to do is become someone's 'baby mama' or housewife. Women all over are subjected to these stereotypes [and] that's why I firmly believe in this college."

McGuire says that poor or minority women who see not just college but a women's college in particular as their ticket to knowledge, empowerment, and success are not the only students who appreciate what women's colleges have to offer. An analysis of data from the National Survey for Student Engagement shows women at women's colleges rate their educational experience higher than women at coeducational schools.

When more than 300 women's colleges existed in the early 1960s, these schools primarily served upper-middle-class, white students. The nearly 50 women's colleges still operating today are among the country's more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse liberal arts colleges, offering generous financial aid packages. Just as women's colleges originally were founded because women couldn't go to college elsewhere, many of today's women's colleges are surviving—and thriving—by educating specific populations of women who are still underserved.

Though about 95 percent of Trinity's students were white when alumnae like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius were students there, 85 percent of Trinity's current student body is either African-American or Hispanic. About half of the students hail from the D.C. metro area, and many women are the first in their family to go to college. Some are also the first in their families to graduate from high school, McGuire says. Although Trinity has little money for marketing and relies mostly on word of mouth to promote itself, the number of students enrolled in the university's women's college has risen by about 40 percent since 2000 to a record high of 600 students this spring semester. Trinity, like many of today's women's colleges, also enrolls part-time and professional students in coeducational programs to help financially support its historical women's college.

Because many of Trinity's women's college students arrive needing to improve their critical reading, writing, and math skills, the college recently rewrote its first-year curriculum to include a greater emphasis on developing these "foundational skills," McGuire says. "It's not that these women aren't smart or can't do it," she added. "It's that no one ever sat them down and explained how to do it." Like Trinity, Nebraska's College of St. Mary once had a primarily white student body. Today, about 20 percent of the student body at St. Mary's is made up of minority women, but what makes this midwestern women's college stand out is the comprehensive support it provides for single mothers seeking a college education. Women in the Mothers Living and Learning program live with their children alongside other single mothers in on-campus dorms, have access to free meals for their children in the college's dining hall, and can enroll their children in day-care services that are within walking distance of the college's campus.

10 Famous Alumnae of Women's Colleges:
• Madeleine Albright
• Hillary Clinton
• Drew Gilpin Faust
• Betty Friedan
• Katherine Hepburn
• Gwen Ifill
• Nancy Pelosi
• Anna Quindlen
• Kathleen Sebelius
• Martha Stewart
More alumnae >>