A World without Women’s Colleges and Universities

Guest post by Kristen A. Renn

rennThe recent and—to many—unexpected announcement of the fast-track closing of Sweet Briar College has sent shockwaves through the private liberal arts college sector. Nearly all of the remaining women’s colleges in the U.S. are also in this sector and thus face a dual threat to continued existence: the decreasing viability of private non-profit colleges that lack substantial endowments and the small fraction of students who are interested in attending women’s colleges. Interest among American applicants may be unable to sustain the entire sector, and even with substantial enrollment of international students at some of these colleges, it seems certain that the sector, now at about forty-five institutions, will shrink to at most a few dozen of the financially strongest institutions.

Yet in other parts the world, women’s colleges and universities are thriving and expanding in number. In India, for example, there are over 2,500, and the government has plans to open 800 more; the largest of these institutions has 70,000 students. I recently completed a ten-nation study of women’s colleges and universities and found that in addition to regions where gender-segregated education is the overwhelming mode of educating girls and women, women’s institutions remain critical to providing educational access in countries like India, where some families will not consider sending their daughters to coeducational universities. Women’s institutions serve other important roles: they create positive and safe campus climates for women; develop students, faculty, and administrators as leaders; and promote gender empowerment locally, nationally, and regionally. My study raises the question about what would be lost if these institutions failed to exist. The fate of Sweet Briar brings immediacy to the question for U.S. higher education.

The role of women’s colleges in providing access to higher education in the U.S. is limited. Nearly any student at a women’s college would go to a coeducational institution if no gender-segregated option were available. This argument has been largely irrelevant for decades.

But women’s colleges in the U.S. fulfill three of the other roles I observed in other countries. First, they provide a campus climate that supports women’s academic success in the full range of disciplines, both traditional and non-traditional for female students. Even four decades since the elite private universities went coed, the women’s colleges produce disproportionate numbers of scientists, mathematicians, doctors, lawyers, business executives, and politicians. By default, every opportunity for undergraduate research with a faculty member, or internship with a successful alumna, or undergraduate academic prize goes to a woman. Sexual harassment and assault are substantially less common at women’s colleges—not one women’s institution is being investigated by the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights for a suspected Title IX violation.

Second, women’s colleges also explicitly emphasize leadership development. The expectation that their students will become leaders is built into campus life, from athletics to student governance, public service, and campus organizations. Slogans like “Women Who Will Change the World” abound in women’s college media, and alumnae who have done just that are held up as role models—Hillary Clinton, Frances Perkins, Gwen Ifill, and Jhumpa Lahiri, among others.

Finally, American women’s colleges promote gender empowerment. They are locations for substantial research and activism on behalf of changing notions of gender. Many remain sites for feminist scholarship and community organizing. In an evolution of what it means to be a “women’s college” in the twenty-first century, some of the elite women’s colleges (Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr) have recently articulated policies that welcome transgender applicants and support students who do not self-identify as women. This type of gender empowerment represents a new frontier for a sector of institutions that for over 175 years has defined itself in a gender binary that no longer represents the talented students and emerging leaders who want to attend women’s colleges. Some people see in these articulations an existential threat to the sector. But I assert that the policies, which some college presidents have defended in part as descriptions of the students and alums who are already part of the institutions, are less concern than the threat to financial viability of small, private liberal arts colleges.

During interviews and focus groups around the world I asked the question, “What would your country be like if there were no women’s colleges and universities?” I turn that question now to the U.S. What would be lost if we had no women’s colleges? I contend that we would lose models for educating all students across academic fields in environments that supported their learning, free from threat of harm, and promoted their development as leaders. We would also lose organizations with long histories of activism on behalf of women’s education that are now adapting to new definitions of women and gender.

Kristen A. Renn is a professor of higher, adult, and lifelong education at Michigan State University as well as Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies. She is the author of Women’s Colleges and Universities in a Global Context and Mixed Race Students in College: The Ecology of Race, Identity, and Community on Campus and the coauthor of College Students in the United States: Characteristics, Experiences, and Outcomes.