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.

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Susan Williams lives in a St. Mary's dorm with two of her children and says the specialized program for single mothers attracted her to a women's college. Before transferring to St. Mary's, Williams attended the University of Missouri. At Mizzou, she lived in off-campus housing with her children but had little access to additional assistance. "At Mizzou, I was basically living on my own, and that didn't work for me. I needed more [emotional and academic] support," says Williams, who is studying to become an occupational therapist. "Women need women's colleges because for some women like me, it's the only way they will see where they can go in life."

When St. Mary's initiated its program for single mothers in 2000, just six mothers and their children were enrolled. Today, the program has grown to include 32 moms and their 38 children, who come from across the country to join the program. Sister Karen, a nun who runs the MLL program at St. Mary's, says she often finds mothers supporting other mothers in ways as simple as an hour of much-needed babysitting. "If one student's baby is out of control and Mom is frazzled, another mom is often there to knock on her door and say, 'Take a shower. I'll keep an eye on the baby while you take some time for you,' " Sister Karen says. "This level of support breeds success among these students, students who need to be successful not only for themselves but for their children, too."

Virginia's Mary Baldwin College reaches specialized populations of women like the young, exceptionally gifted students who can attend the college as teenagers or women interested in joining an all-female corps of cadets, but the school also attracts women without the socioeconomic means to attend other colleges. Mary Baldwin President Pamela Fox says that 75 percent of her college's students receive need-based financial aid and that in response to the failing economy, Mary Baldwin students will have access to additional financial aid through the "Boldly Baldwin" program starting next fall.

The package offers 250 new first-year students a $2,000 merit award, an undetermined number of upperclassmen additional merit and need-based aid, and 50 students of all grade levels new on-campus internship positions where, she says, "we will put our own students to work." Fox says the Boldly Baldwin program is just one example of the many ways women's colleges turn to innovative ideas as a means to continue to attract new students. "Women's colleges are ahead of the curve and on the forefront of what women need," Fox says. "We have never been and we will never be followers. We have to create our own way forward."

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
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