For high school seniors, it's the exciting and stressful season of prioritizing colleges and completing applications. Should you consider a women's college? It's worth thinking about.
Those of us who went to women's colleges (I went to Bryn Mawr) are never surprised to hear the news that the "first" woman ever to do x, y or z, just happened to graduate from such a school. For example, many "firsts" in the world of government were graduates of women's colleges, including:
- First woman speaker of the House: Nancy Pelosi, Trinity College
- First woman secretary of state: Madeleine Albright, Wellesley College
- First woman to head the Office of Management and Budget, a Cabinet-level post: Alice Rivlin, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College who was also the first person of any gender to head the Congressional Budget Office
- First Asian-American woman cabinet member: Elaine Chao, Mt. Holyoke College
In the world of business, the first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company was Katharine Graham, who graduated from Vassar College (more than 30 years before it opened its doors to men). Similar "firsts" populate the world of medicine, journalism, and science – the first woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church, the first woman general in the U.S. Army, the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, Nobel Prize in Literature and the first woman to climb three of the world's tallest peaks. Then there's the first woman president of a major American university, and the first woman president of Harvard – current President Drew Faust, a Bryn Mawr grad. And don't forget one of our most significant glass-ceiling breakers, Hillary Clinton, a graduate of Wellesley College.
Indeed, the women who break various glass ceilings in society are often those who were nurtured as young women at women's colleges.
Why would that be? Why the connection? There's no doubt that women's colleges produce strong, self-assured young women who aren't afraid to tackle daunting challenges.
First, of course, there are the well-documented findings that classrooms of only (or mainly) women students result in those students participating more actively in the classroom, and reporting higher levels of active learning, higher order thinking, and more academic challenge throughout their four years than women in coed settings report. Students at women's colleges also report more interaction with faculty. It may simply be that faculty take women more seriously and spend more time nurturing their learning when impressive young men aren't around to dominate the classroom and the faculty members' attention. Just ask the women at Harvard Business School, who've been struggling to break through in classroom discussions and professors' eyes. In women's colleges, faculty and administrators set high standards for the women students and make clear their expectation that the graduates will achieve great things. This surely leaves a lasting impact on the students.
Studies also show that students at women's colleges are much more likely to earn PhDs than are their counterparts at coed colleges. And they are dozens of times more likely to stick with math and hard science studies than women who attend coed colleges. Not twice as likely to stick with it but dozens of times more likely. Nobody knows why, but the vast majority of women who enter coed colleges thinking they will major in math or chemistry or some other hard science drop out of those fields (as compared to the "soft sciences" such as sociology and psychology). In contrast, women stick with those studies in women's colleges, and go on to careers in those fields. Something is going on in the classrooms at coed colleges to discourage women from math and sciences; or something supportive is happening in women's college classrooms that coed schools may need to take a look at.
Women students' success happens outside the classroom as well. The editor of the student newspaper, head of the student government and all the other positions on campus are, by definition, held by women. Such leadership roles offer a terrific learning experience.
The campus communities also tend to be nurturing and supportive. Women's colleges develop very strong community bonds, passed down through generations of female graduates. "Traditions" at women's colleges differ from those at coed, with regular "step sings," "lantern night," "hoop races," special tea parties, and "canoe sings" – not unlike the special songs and traditions a girl might find at an all-girls' summer camp, and many of them common to all women's colleges. My husband said he didn't fully appreciate my college experience until he saw me at a reunion, singing ancient songs in Greek and Latin, in the dark night, with lanterns (colored by class year) swinging from our hands. The reality is that young men are simply less willing to stand around singing ancient songs in Greek and Latin about wisdom and beauty.
Citing all the studies about how women's colleges succeed so much better at nurturing and educating young women, Smith College offers the perfect tag line: "Of course, the world is coeducational. But Smith women enter it more confidently than women graduates of coed schools." A women's college might just be worth considering when you make your college choice this Fall.
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