Women’s colleges seek to rebrand

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/02/09/womens-colleges-seek-to-rebrand/

SWEET BRIAR, Virginia – Last spring, Sweet Briar College, a 115-year-old women’s college in rural Virginia, made headlines when it suddenly announced that it would close.

Energetic and loyal Sweet Briar alumnae rallied to save their beloved school, forming a nonprofit and social media campaign to resuscitate the institution. But the near-death experience raised broader questions about the fate of single-sex colleges in America.

In the 1960s, there were around 200 women’s colleges in the United States, according to the National Institute on Postsecondary Education. But as men’s colleges began to open their doors to women during the 1960s and 1970s, the number of women’s colleges began to decline, as they too began to admit members of the opposite sex, or shuttered their doors entirely. Today, there are only 42 women’s colleges. There are three colleges that are exclusively male.  

Twenty-six of the nation’s 42 women’s colleges are located in Massachusetts, including a few of the famous Seven Sisters, the prestigious all-girls’ schools founded in the northeast the mid-1800s to parallel the Ivy League men’s colleges.

Today, only five of the original Seven Sisters still cater exclusively to women – Barnard College in New York City, Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Smith College in Northampton, and Wellesley College in Wellesley.

Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York became coeducational in 1969 and Radcliffe College in Cambridge merged into a graduate fellowship with Harvard University in 1999.

As more women have enrolled in co-ed higher education programs, interest in women’s education has waned. During this same time period, interest in liberal arts education has also declined, perhaps exacerbating the problem for women’s colleges, which are largely liberal arts schools.  

According to the Women’s College Coalition, an association of women’s colleges and universities, students who attend women’s colleges are 1.5 times more likely to major in a science or math than women who attend co-educational schools. The coalition also notes that, although they make up 2 percent of all college graduates, graduates of women’s colleges comprise 20 percent of women in Congress and 33 percent of women on Fortune 1000 boards.

Chef Julia Child, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and actress Meryl Streep are just some of the many famous graduates of women’s colleges.

But the Sweet Briar episode was a “wake-up call” for many women’s colleges, Michele Ozumba, the coalition’s president told a Bustle reporter. “If Sweet Briar failed, it’s not that all women’s colleges would’ve failed, but it would have really affected everyone in that sector.”

Ozumba doesn’t believe women’s colleges will disappear.

“They’re the only colleges that have the singular distinction of specializing in women’s leadership for the past 200 years,” she said.

Sweet Briar College Board Chairman Teresa Tomlinson said Friday during a live-streamed town hall on campus that the real issue at stake isn’t demographic, it’s substantive, as liberal arts programs face increased pressure. For her school, the two values are female leadership and melding the arts with increasingly popular STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – into what she describes as “STEAM.”

“There will always be a market for extraordinarily capable women leaders, and that is the product that Sweet Briar College turns out,” she said. “That’s why Sweet Briar College has never been more relevant than it is right now, today.”

The Sweet Briar story seems to have a happy ending, for now. According to USA Today, earlier this month the school hit a record number of applications – 1099 students, compared to 751 at the same time last year. Sweet Briar is  striving to market the value of single-sex colleges in a new way, and aiming for a modest goal of 250 first-year students annually, said chief admissions officer Steven Nape.

“Look at what special thing happened at Sweet Briar,” Sweet Briar College President Phillip C. Stone. “The unique factor … you’re women. Women who bonded at a special way… with leadership that developed in special way.”

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis