Revival of women's colleges sparks Saint Mary's success
By KATIE McVOY
In a recent writing on the future of women's colleges, Saint Mary's president Marilou Eldred attributed the continued success of women's colleges to two main reasons.
"First, and most important, we offer a quality education," she wrote. "Second, we endure and even thrive because women's colleges offer superior opportunities for women to achieve their personal and professional goals."
Only 2.5 percent of all females who attend college choose women's colleges. But, 1/3 of the female members of the 1992 Fortune 1000 companies, one in seven members of state cabinets, and 30 percent of women on a Business Week list of the 50 women rising in corporate America are graduates of women's colleges.
Although the number of all female institutions fell sharply from over 200 in the 1960's to 76 in 1997, women's colleges today seem to be on the rise again. After a period of decline, this renaissance is good news to women's colleges such as Saint Mary's. But why the return to an all-women's education?
"In various studies, graduates of women's colleges are more than twice as likely as graduates of coeducational colleges to receive doctorate degrees," said Debbie Wesley, assistant director of admissions at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. "[And they're twice as likely] to enter medical school and receive doctorates in the natural sciences."
Realizing the benefits
An increasing number of women are realizing the advantages of attending a women's college. Most all surviving women's colleges are small, liberal arts institutions offering undergraduate degrees.
Many institutions are located in the vicinity of a larger co-educational institution, which offers a small, liberal arts atmosphere as well as the experience and social opportunities associated with a larger university, much like Saint Mary's relationship with Notre Dame.
Barnard University, located in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, in close proximity to Columbia University, is another women's college that has reaped the benefits of a large-university affiliation.
"I think that we are in a particular situation in that we're across the street and associated with Columbia," Dean of Admissions of Barnard Jennifer Fondiller said. "There is a perception that all women's colleges are isolated, but most are associated with co-educational institutions which is very good."
In addition, women's colleges offer leadership experience and mentoring opportunities, and encourage women to pursue academic goals. "I think we focus on the positive aspects of women's college," said Mary Pat Nolan, director of admissions at Saint Mary's. "Leadership opportunities, mentoring, cooperative learning and the benefits of developing long term friendships are all things we focus on." Research has shown that graduates from women's colleges are very likely to pursue higher education in the form of master's degrees or Ph.D. and take prominent positions in society.
Only 0.5 percent of all college graduates receive degrees from women's institutions, but 12 members of the 105th U.S. Congress are graduates of all women's institutions.
Women's colleges often provide mentoring opportunities in the form of female faculty and staff.
"About 25 percent of all college professors are women," Fondiller said. "At Barnard, 60 percent of the faculty are women. There is a conscious effort to provide female role models."
Students of all women's colleges may not choose the college because it is all women. Some choose the college because of its affiliation with a larger institution or because of specific degree offerings. However, most graduates of all women's colleges learn to appreciate the benefits of that atmosphere.
"[The students] didn't choose it because it was a women's college, but they come appreciate it because it is an all-women's college," Fondiller said.
Founding women's education
While women's colleges offer a unique opportunity in the 21st century to pursue education, women's education was not always embraced. Manifested in these pre-revolution attitudes, women's colleges emerged to provide women with educational opportunity.
During the founding years of the United States, institutions of higher learning only opened their doors to men. However, following the revolution, women became increasingly interested in pursuing education.
In 1772 Salem College in North Carolina became the first institute of higher learning to open its doors to women. Sixty-four years later, Wesleyan College in Georgia granted the first degrees to women.
It was only a year later that male colleges and universities began opening their doors to women. Oberlin's Collegiate Department accepted four women in 1837 to make it the first co-educational facility on the college level.
Women's colleges continued to spring up and flourish throughout the 19th century and through the mid-20th century. In 1960, there were more than 200 women's colleges in the United States.
However, the 1960's and 1970's saw a new trend in women's education. With the advent of the Civil Rights movement, changes in legislature and social norms resulted in many previously all male institutions opening their doors to women. As a result, many women's colleges merged with male colleges, became co-educational themselves, or were forced to close because of increased competition between institutions of higher education.
The movement took its toll. By 1993 only 83 women's colleges existed; that number has fallen to 76 today. Notre Dame opened its doors to women in 1972. Despite the pressure to merge with Notre Dame, Saint Mary's chose to remain independent because it wished to retain its identity and the advantages of an all-women's college.
Looking to the future
Despite the toll the Civil Rights movement took on the number of women's colleges in the United States, the institutions that remain appear to have a bright future.
"Women's colleges are enjoying something of a rebirth these days," Eldred wrote. "Admissions numbers at Saint Mary's were up 25 percent last year and many other women's colleges also reported increases."
Barnard reported a 30 percent increase since 1995. The question arises as to why this increase is occurring. "I think it's a cyclical thing," Nolan said. "People are more interested in women's colleges now."
Although interest in colleges may be cyclical, the rebirth in women's colleges does not seem to be a fluke.
With the recent creation of the Women's College Coalition, all women's colleges are uniting in their efforts to encourage women to consider and attend these types of institutions. Through the workings of this coalition and the cooperation of most women's colleges in the United States, women's colleges have taken a larger part in sponsoring and co-sponsoring national college conventions.
"There is a greater collaborative spirit," Nolan said. "One of the things that has brought women's colleges to the forefront is the Women's College Coalition."
In addition to national recognition among colleges, the spirit of collaboration has encouraged more extensive media coverage of all women's colleges and more research into the benefits of attending an all women's college. Public figures who are graduates of all women's colleges have helped draw attention to the idea of all women's institutions.
"I hope [the increase in interest] is because we've been doing a terrific job getting the message out," Fondiller said. "You see a lot of women leaders who have graduated from all women's colleges and there is better medium publicity."
In addition, women's colleges have taken advantage of the technological revolution that is sweeping across the United States.
"In my opinion, the student that attends a women's college or a coed institution is still the same, but the method that women's colleges use in its recruitment efforts has definitely evolved," Wesley said. "Students are quite computer savvy and meeting their needs means changing how we communicate with them through technology."
All News Stories for Friday, November 3, 2000