A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

A Closer Look At Women's Colleges, July 1999


A Closer Look at Women's Colleges

Irene Harwarth
U.S. Department of Education

Why Study Women's Colleges?

The landscape of higher education has changed dramatically over the past few decades. More students are attending higher education institutions part-time, more students of nontraditional age are pursuing opportunities in higher education, and there is more racial and ethnic diversity on college campuses today than ever before. One of the more important changes is that women are now the majority of students at the postsecondary level. Therefore, the study of how women progress and succeed in our higher education institutions is vital to the continued success of the American system of postsecondary education.

To assess the current status of American women in higher education, we must first understand the history of women in higher education, and an important part of that history involves institutions known as women's colleges. A women's college is defined as an institution where there is an institutional mission to serve the needs of women in higher education as well as a predominantly female student body. Over a century ago, women's colleges played a large role in the higher education of women, because of the very low number of higher education institutions that would allow women to matriculate. But as the number of coeducational institutions rose over the years, women's colleges lost influence over the higher education of women.

Women's colleges are mostly private 4-year colleges, and private 4-year colleges have decreased as a proportion of the higher education universe. In contrast, the number of public colleges, especially 2-year colleges, has increased, and today public institutions educate the majority of female college students. The actual number of women's colleges has dropped from approximately 300 in 1960 to about 80 in 1998, but the majority of the women's colleges that have maintained their educational mission of serving the higher education needs of women have seen increasing enrollments over the past few years. (Table I-1, below, shows enrollment data for most of those colleges.) These institutions have also been the subject of increased attention. The women's colleges that have remained true to their institutional mission of serving women, and have survived the rising competition from coeducational private and public institutions, are interesting to study due to their success in educating women, as well as their resilience as institutions.

Table I-1 —Total Enrollment at Selected* Women's Colleges: Fall 1993 and Fall 1995

Institution ST

Fall 1993

Fall 1995

% Change

Mount Vernon College DC




Trinity College DC




Rosemont College PA




Mount Saint Mary's College CA




Sweet Briar College VA




Chatham College PA




Carlow College PA




Scripps College CA




Mississippi University For Women MS




College Of Saint Elizabeth NJ




Emmanuel College MA




Regis College MA




Mary Baldwin College VA




College Of New Rochelle NY




Lesley College MA




Blue Mountain College MS




Salem College NC




Smith College MA




Simmons College MA




Saint Mary's College IN




College Of Saint Catherine MN




Marymount Manhattan College NY




Hollins College VA




Meredith College NC




Brenau University GA




Saint Mary-Of-The-Woods College IN




Converse College SC




Columbia College SC




College Of Notre Dame Maryland MD




College Of Saint Benedict MN




Moore College Of Art And Design PA




Chestnut Hill College PA




Barnard College NY




Bay Path College MA




Cedar Crest College PA




Mills College CA




Wilson College PA




Randolph-Macon Woman's College VA




Wesleyan College GA




Texas Woman's University TX




Agnes Scott College GA




Bryn Mawr College PA




Hood College MD




Midway College KY




Harcum Junior College PA




Georgian Court College NJ




Mount Holyoke College MA




Trinity College VT




Wellesley College MA




Spelman College GA




Peace College NC




Saint Joseph College CT




Mount Mary College WI




College Of Saint Mary NE




Judson College AL




Alverno College WI




Seton Hill College PA




Bennett College NC




Wells College NY




Marymount College NY




Stephens College MO




Russell Sage College Main Campus NY




Immaculata College PA




Notre Dame College Of Ohio OH




Cottey College MO




Pine Manor College MA




Ursuline College OH




Aquinas College At Milton MA




Aquinas College At Newton MA




*In the report Women's Colleges in the United States: History Issues and Challenges, 76 institutions were identified as having a mission to serve women. These institutions also reported data to the U.S. Department of Education consistently from 1978 through 1993 independent of other institutions, therefore allowing for trend analysis of data in that publication. Of those 76 institutions, the 69 in this table were identified by the Women's College Coalition (WCC) as currently having a mission to serve the educational needs of women. Mount Vernon College was acquired by The George Washington University in 1996.
Source: Harwarth, Irene, Mindi Maline, and Elizabeth DeBra. Women's Colleges in the United States:
History, Issues, and Challenges.
Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997;U.S.Department of Education, 1997 Directory of Postsecondary Institutions, Volume I. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998.

Purpose of the Roundtable and Publication

This publication is based on the roundtable discussion, "A Closer Look at Women's Colleges," which was held on January 15, 1998, in Washington, DC. Select education researchers from around the country were invited to participate and react to four commissioned papers presenting current research on women's colleges, as well as to discuss research issues pertaining to women's colleges and their place in the higher education community.

The purpose of the roundtable was to review past research regarding the merits of a women's college education, and to explore what new research will be helpful in the future. During the roundtable, participants explored such questions as:

The roundtable was organized jointly by the National Institute on Postsecondary Education, Libraries, and Lifelong Learning (PLLI) in the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) and the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation (AAUWEF). The issues raised for discussion at the roundtable were identified by PLLI and AAUWEF staff, with the advice of researchers involved with the study of women's colleges. These issues were seen as not only key topics in the study of these institutions, but also as topics pertaining to research already available, allowing a starting point for discussion.

For PLLI, the January roundtable on women's colleges offered a chance to follow-up on a report released in June of 1997, Women's Colleges in the United States: History, Issues, and Challenges. This report provided a brief history of women's colleges, statistics, and a discussion of the institutional effects of women's colleges, and quoted findings that women's colleges lead to increased leadership skills in young women and to more successful professional outcomes. However, the development of this report, and its subsequent publication, provoked more questions than could be answered in one volume. How can women's colleges be assessed, compared to other colleges, when women's colleges are such a small part (1 percent) of the higher education universe? What are the backgrounds of women who choose to attend women's colleges? Are these women satisfied with the education they receive at these institutions? How well do different types of women's colleges serve the needs of their student populations? How well are women's colleges dealing with racial/ethnic diversity issues? What efforts are women's colleges making to attract and retain students and faculty who are members of racial/ethnic minorities?

The AAUWEF was also interested in these issues. As an organization that has had a long history of supporting women in higher education, the AAUWEF sponsors fellowships for female scholars from around the country. The AAUWEF noted that many of the successful women who have been awarded these fellowships were from women's colleges. Of paramount importance to both the AAUWEF, and PLLI, is identifying research findings on women's colleges that can be used to improve the educational experience of women at the coeducational institutions that make up the vast majority of institutions of higher education.

The following is a synopsis of the papers presented at the January roundtable, the discussions provoked by these papers, and suggestions for a future research agenda that were inspired by both the papers and the discussion. Appendix A contains a participant list for the January roundtable.

Women's Colleges and Educational Outcomes

Paper and Discussion

M. Elizabeth Tidball opened the roundtable discussion with a presentation on her paper, "What Is This Thing Called Institutional Productivity?" Tidball has been a pioneer in educational research in studying the outcomes of women who attended women's colleges as a part of her interest in women achievers. For this paper, she analyzed data from the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Doctorate Record File Compilation of 1991 on individuals who graduated from college during the 1970s. She looked at the number of women from women's colleges of various levels of selectivity who went on to obtain their doctorates. Tidball concluded that being at a college for women is an important factor in women's subsequent success, and the productivity of women's colleges is disproportionally greater than their selectivity.

Participants reacted to this paper by questioning how productivity or "success" is measured, and raising concerns about using Doctorates as a measure of success, suggesting that law degrees, and MD degrees and MBAs could be considered measures of successful educational outcomes. They also raised the issue of what happens in the classroom and how that can be used as a measure of success. As one participant asked: "What is it that constitutes the experience of making a woman creative? Making a woman analytical? Making a woman competitive, in terms of her abilities?" There may be a difference between the classroom experiences of women at women's institutions, coeducational institutions, and special mission institutions that create the conditions that bring out the best in women. This participant added that we should not lose sight of these classroom experiences as we discuss campus conditions and educational outcomes for female students.

Another participant raised achievement of any college degree as a measure of success. There is already research indicating higher earning power, better health, etc., with the earning of a college degree. One public policy issue that is a priority in the higher education community is enhancing successful educational outcomes for minority women. For example, recent statistics show a high college dropout rate for Hispanic women. This participant suggested that coeducational institutions should look at what "enables women to succeed."

Participants also discussed the issue of studying the success of women graduates in traditionally male-dominated fields, such as mathematics. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have been very successful in graduating minorities in the field of mathematics. If other higher education institutions want to learn how to improve in this area, they can study the HBCUs.

Issues For Future Research

Develop alternative definitions of success for higher education graduates. Now that there are much larger numbers of women attending institutions of higher education, it is more important than ever that there is study of strategies that lead to successful educational outcomes for women. There was agreement that we need to find ways to measure the contributions of female college graduates to society, not only economically, but socially as well.

Study the impact of women's colleges on students' achievements and careers in mathematics and science. There was agreement among the participants that one area in which success at women's colleges could be transferred to coeducational institutions was in the area of mathematics and science. One of the problems with transferring successful strategies at women's colleges to coeducational institutions in this area is that it would be difficult to immediately change the faculties at coeducational institutions. One participant pointed out that a large proportion of the mathematics and science faculty at women's colleges are female, while at coeducational institutions the great majority of faculty in these areas are male.

Women's Colleges and Student Satisfaction

Paper and Discussion

Emily Langdon presented her paper "Who Attends a Women's College Today and Why She Should: An Exploration of Women's College Students and Alumnae." In her paper, Langdon analyzed two sets of data collected by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP). She found women students satisfied with their classroom experiences, the facilities, services, and the climate at women's colleges more than women who attended comparable coeducational institutions. This satisfaction was not only present at graduation, but also five years later. Langdon noted that women who attended women's colleges had different reasons for attending college in the first place when compared to their peers at coeducational institutions. Women who chose women's colleges stated that they did so because they wanted to be a more cultured person or because a role model encouraged them to go on to higher education. Langdon interpreted these responses as evidence of a more "holistic" view, a look at the long-term effects of attending college, a consideration for the special atmosphere of a women's college. Langdon concluded by summarizing that the data she saw on women who attended women's colleges indicated that they would attend a women's college again if they were making the choice today.

There was discussion about assessment of student achievement in higher education in relation to student background, and how some researchers have dismissed successful educational outcomes at women's colleges as being related to the socioeconomic backgrounds of the women attending these institutions. Participants raised concerns about these perceptions of student achievement at women's colleges, and noted that researchers generally do not discount positive results at prestigious coeducational institutions because these schools attract students with higher socioeconomic backgrounds. Participants wondered why women's colleges were being judged differently in this regard.

Participants also raised concerns that women of nontraditional age were often ignored in research on women at women's colleges. One participant asked if, when considering issues such as student satisfaction, researchers have looked at different age groups. In her work she has found that only twenty-five women's colleges have a student population of 80 percent or over of traditional-age student population. Women of nontraditional age at women's colleges are a minority, but a significant minority. The research on these women is qualitative, usually involving stories of changes in their lives through their experiences at women's colleges. Participants discussed how there could be further research on these women, perhaps through the gathering of statistics.

Langdon reported that her statistical study had been based on women of traditional student age. But in reviewing literature and studying the institutions, she had found that women's colleges are leaders in responding to the needs of women re-entering higher education. She concedes that the database she used in her research, CIRP, is focused on the traditional-aged student. The surveying takes place during orientation, and since a lot of nontraditionally-aged students do not go to orientation, they do not get surveyed. CIRP does not include women who attend "weekend college" programs. Langdon concluded that researchers are missing a large group of women.

One participant discussed the issue of lifelong learning by pointing out that some women's colleges have expanded the career planning office into things such as a "lifetimes" center, providing services to alumnae. There was agreement that in the areas of career planning and alumnae services there are various ways women's colleges have been responsive to the needs of women graduates over their lifetimes. The participants believed that these strategies, as well as the importance of networking, should be studied.

Ideas for Future Research

Examine the impact of contacts made by students at women's colleges on their future careers. Given the high level of student satisfaction that Langdon found at women's colleges, is there evidence that female students at women's colleges develop better "networks" with their peers than women at coeducational institutions? Are women graduates from women's colleges more likely to be active alumnae than women graduates of coeducational institutions?

Develop a database — or use existing ones — to facilitate research for long-term studies of education at women's colleges. Two participants in particular were very concerned about the lack of quantitative data for the study of women's colleges. One pointed out that researchers were examining the same database over and over and reaching the same conclusions. A new or enhanced survey, or a new database, could possibly be able to provide new information. Another participant stated that it would be useful to be able to encourage oversampling of women's colleges in current large statistical studies. There was agreement among the participants that quantitative, as well as qualitative studies were necessary to further assess the impact of women's colleges on their graduates.

Institutional Characteristics of Women's Colleges

Paper and Discussion

Lisa Wolf-Wendel gave a presentation based on her paper "Research Issues on Women's Colleges." In this paper, Wolf-Wendel described case studies of two women's colleges: Bryn Mawr College, a "Seven Sisters" college in Pennsylvania with a large endowment, and the very different Bennett College, of North Carolina, a Historically Black College, with fewer resources. Yet both institutions, Wolf-Wendel found, have created environments in which women are encouraged to succeed academically. Wolf-Wendel identified seven factors prevalent on both campuses: well-defined and clearly communicated missions; high expectations; some degree of personal support; positive role models; a large number of women available as colleagues; ample opportunities for women to hold leadership positions; and inclusion of women in the curriculum. Wolf-Wendel concluded in her paper that it is the combination of these characteristics that make both of these institutions so successful at meeting the educational needs of women, despite their different levels of resources and their different student populations.

Participants pointed out that most women attend coeducational public colleges. In many parts of the country these institutions are the only higher education choices available for women. There was interest in the issues Wolf-Wendel raised about how certain characteristics of institutions can enhance an institution's ability to meet women's educational needs. How can the positive factors associated with attending a women's college, such as those identified by Wolf-Wendel's research, be applied to the large number of women who attend coeducational institutions?

Tidball replied that researchers must provide coeducational institutions with the information they need in order to develop strategies that take women seriously, that is, that allow women to make the most of their potential. Interest in the success of women students must come from the top, for example, if the institution's trustees take women seriously at a school it affects the entire school culture. Women must assume leadership, whether in government organizations or coeducational higher education institutions.

Langdon raised other findings from her analysis of CIRP data revealing that women who were satisfied with their education at women's colleges were also concerned with issues such as faculty diversity and books by women included in the curriculum. Increasing faculty diversity and increasing the visibility of women in the curriculum are ways coeducational institutions can better serve their female students.

Wolf-Wendel stated that institutions need to be purposefully coeducational. There has to be an understanding that both men and women will be educated in this environment. She found that regardless of whether an institution was a women's college or not, if women believed that their institution cared about student learning, diversity and gender equity, and civic involvement and social issues, women at both types of schools tended to have positive outcomes. However, women at women's colleges were more likely than women at coeducational institutions to believe that their institution cared about issues such as diversity, civic involvement, and gender equity. This is an important point because coeducational institutions that are purposeful about educating women and people of color can have a positive impact. This attitude is vital, students have to recognize that their institution has a purpose of educating everybody.

Ideas for Future Research

Compare institutional characteristics and outcomes of students who attend different types of women's colleges — 4-year, 2-year, public, private and/or religious, historically black or tribal institutions. Participants were well aware of the diversity among women's colleges and agreed that there need to be more case studies. These case studies could focus on Catholic women's colleges and the lesser-known women's colleges that do not often get studied. There was also agreement that there needs to be more research comparing women's colleges with other special mission institutions. Like women's colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), have had great success in graduating women and minorities in traditionally male-dominated fields, such as mathematics and science, and in graduating women who go on to obtain doctorates. It would be useful to mainstream coeducational institutions to learn from women's colleges why special mission institutions are so much more successful in producing women and minority students who go on to other achievements in these areas.

Identify examples of women's colleges' success in producing positive outcomes with limited financial resources. Participants agreed that there is a need to further study the impact of resources. Women's colleges that have been successful with fewer resources could offer models for other institutions that will be facing resource problems in the future. It was suggested that researchers look at expenditure per student, particularly for institutions that are successful for blacks and Hispanics. The importance of this research would be that institutions that have graduated a disproportionate number of women who, for example, became doctors, or were listed in Who's Who publications, are places that could be models for other institutions. These models would provide strategies that might be transferable to coeducational institutions. Participants raised concerns that the higher education community is now more and more dependent on listings and rankings, and the places that already have the resources tend to be on top. Tribal colleges, HBCUs, Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) and women's colleges deserve more recognition of what they are doing and how they could do even better with additional resources.

Evaluate the impact of women's colleges on non-traditional students and diverse populations. Include experience with distance education, lifelong learning and "gateway" programs. Most women's colleges have developed what some call "gateway" programs for nontraditional students. Participants pointed out that the women's colleges having the most success with nontraditional students have been the Catholic colleges. They are in urban areas, and have always had a mission to serve the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Some selective women's colleges have programs for nontraditional students, but these programs are rarely adapted to meet nontraditional students' special needs such as flexible schedules, daycare, etc. Also, most of the selective women's colleges have high tuition and this limits their enrollment of nontraditional students. The Catholic women's colleges provide a variety of ways in which a woman can study at the college, and there are also support structures for these women. While these schools have become more secular over the years, they have continued to serve older and lower-income women and they continue to take that mission seriously. It was agreed that the impact of alternative programs (such as weekend colleges and distance learning programs) on nontraditional students is an area that has not been sufficiently studied.

Faculty and Diversity Issues at Women's Colleges

Paper and Discussion

In her paper, "Diversity and Women's Colleges," Beverly Guy-Sheftall described strategies by women's colleges to increase the number of racial/ethnic minority women on their faculties. For example, at Smith College, the "Smith Design for Institutional Diversity" was strongly supported by the Board of Trustees and the college President. Because this policy came from the very top, it represented a serious commitment to increasing opportunities for racial/ethnic minority women throughout the campus. Specific goals were set and resources such as funds and personnel were dedicated to these goals. Guy-Sheftall provided this program as an example of a possible model for other women's colleges. Diversity, Guy-Sheftall concluded, must reach beyond the student body. It must be a compelling goal at all levels of the college structure. In addition to assuring a racially and ethnically diverse student body and faculty, women's colleges must also closely examine their curriculum to make sure not only women are included, but also the many differing views of various racial and ethnic minorities in American society.

Participants discussed the challenges involved in assessing the effects of attending a women's college on diverse populations. Langdon described her experience working with Hispanic students at Mount St. Mary's College in California, and noted that many minority women tend to shy away from participating in surveys and studies, and this skews the samples that researchers use. One participant talked about an alumnae weekend she convened for minority women who had not come to alumnae events at her institution. These women, some now very successful, had always considered their time at their women's college as a source of "pain." They had never talked about their feelings before that weekend. The talks that these women had on that alumnae weekend allowed them to express this pain and to realize that others had experienced the same sense of discontent. This revelation allowed them to feel better about their institution and their experiences.

Some participants felt strongly that there are difficulties for all women at women's colleges. For example, one participant identified a "generational clash" for minority women at some women's colleges between those who made up the small numbers of women who enrolled before the sixties who tried to blend into the landscape, and members of a later, more numerous group who wanted to assert a cultural identity.

Another source of pain for women at women's colleges has been confusion about sexual identity due to negative stereotypes about women who prefer all-women educational settings. Wolf-Wendel noted that as housing director at a women's college she saw suicide attempts, eating disorders, abusive relationships, and homophobia, which sometimes resulted in women putting themselves in dangerous situations to prove their heterosexuality. These issues must be further studied.

Guy-Sheftall concluded by stating "when we use race and ethnicity as major categories of analysis, I think most of our deeply-held assumptions about women's colleges begin to fall away. I think for me that is the major challenge for researchers over the next decade, to disrupt some of the assumptions that we make about women's colleges, because we have asked a fairly narrow set of questions."

An example was raised describing how at one predominantly white women's college, one researcher found a reluctance to discuss the perspectives of black or Hispanic women because there was a belief that "we are all women." There was understanding that women could have a different perspective from men, but not acceptance that different women could have different perspectives.

Participants acknowledged that there are individual cultures at the different schools, and that it is important to differentiate between the academic content of an institution and the institution's social purpose. If the institution has an interest in becoming intellectually-responsible and ethically-responsible, there has to be analysis of what is actually being delivered compared to what the institution claims it is doing. Examination of an institution's culture is necessary at not only women's colleges, but coeducational institutions as well.

Issues For Future Research

Examine the role of faculty at women's colleges, including the work climate and the impact of faculty expectations on student outcomes. An example is the issue of faculty expectations of female students. We need to know what the faculty expect from students at women's colleges. There was agreement among the participants that faculty at women's colleges, in the words of one participant, "take women seriously" and that these institutions have high academic expectations for all women students. There was also a desire to see more research on working conditions for women staff and faculty at women's colleges.

Identify causes of "pain" for students and faculty at women's colleges, and strategies for avoiding the pain in the future. There is a need to develop research to understand why some women identify "pain" as a part of their experience at women's colleges, and to deal with the conditions that lead to this pain. There was concern among the participants that some women come to their institutions with expectations that are not met by the institution. Women may also come to their institution with a different set of values than what they find at the institution. When expectations and personal values conflict with the institution, these women experience this "pain." Some of this pain has been identified as being related to cultural differences. There was agreement that many women's colleges have developed programs ranging from strategies to increase faculty diversity to special alumnae weekends for minority women, and that programs such as these could serve as models for other institutions.

How Research on Women's Colleges Could Inform the Public Policy Community

Review of the commissioned papers, roundtable proceedings, and the research issues, as described in this chapter, lead to ideas for the following ways research on women's colleges can inform the public policy community:

[Title page] [Table of Contents] [Chapter 1: What Is This Thing Called Institutional Productivity?]