The continued importance of single-sex education

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The recent near-closure of Sweet Briar, an all-women’s college in Virginia, has rekindled the debate over the continuing relevance of single-sex education.

Single-sex education has a long history, because for millennia many institutions of higher learning refused to admit women; Plato’s Academy in fifth-century Greece was all-male (ok, two women were allowed to study there), and so was Dartmouth, my alma mater, until 1972.

But now that previously all-male colleges and universities have opened their doors to women, do single-sex colleges still make sense?

What can an all-women’s college offer to a young woman in an increasingly competitive, increasingly expensive higher education marketplace?

These are the central questions in this on-going debate, a debate that often fails to take seriously (perhaps subconsciously) the personal testimonies and perspectives of any real women who currently attend, or attended, these schools.

But personal testimonials from women who attended all-women’s colleges abound, and are often not only positive, but downright glowing.

Critics of women’s colleges often claim that life is co-ed and women’s colleges are sheltered places that do not help prepare women for the co-ed “real world.” But the notion that any college reflects “real life” is a red herring. As Barnard graduate Abbey Stone writes in Bustle, “When, in real life, do you attend Anything But Clothes mixers and have access to 24-hour dining halls in which your parents pay for your second helpings of frozen yogurt?”

In my experience, college was nothing like “the real world” or “real life” (whatever those are), and isn’t intended to be. Ideally, college is supposed to be a place for learning, growth and exploration, free from the many mundane and petty cares that dominate the “real life” I’ve been living since graduation.

Other critics argue against single-sex schools on the ground that they perpetuate the idea that there are difference between the genders. But, of course, there are differences between the sexes — obviously the physical differences, but more significantly in this debate, a centuries-old history of indoctrinating men and women with different gender roles.

A single-sex education does not exacerbate stereotypical differences so much as it allows women the opportunity to be free of societal perceptions based on sex and gender and study traditionally male-dominated subjects, such as math and engineering.

A third, and perhaps most common, critique of women’s colleges is that women’s colleges are no longer necessary given the great strides women have made in recent decades.

But while women today attend college in higher numbers than men — and typically perform better and graduate at higher rates — academic success has  not fully translated to professional success, where male CEOs named John still outnumber female CEOs (yes, this is real), and where there are currently 20 female Senators to 80 men. The percentage is roughly the same in the House, where there are 84 women, or 19.4 percent of all Representatives. Evidently, collegiate success is not translating to “real world” success and leadership at the same rates for women as it does for men.

Women’s colleges typically have higher percentages of female professors than the national average, offering students female role models and mentorship from professors. What’s more, every student leadership role at a women’s school is occupied by a women.

Seeing female peers act a leaders (and having a roughly 50 percent better shot of holding a leadership position oneself) gives women leadership opportunities they may not get at a co-ed college, sending a very clear message that women are capable of holding leadership roles. Coupled with a strong alumnae network and female mentorship, women’s colleges may be just what’s needed to close the leadership gap.

And there does seem to be some evidence that women who attend single-sex colleges attain leadership positions at a higher level than women in general; 20 percent of the women in Congress graduated from a women’s college, as did 30 percent of Businessweek’s list of up-and-coming corporate women in America. Considering that only 2 percent of American female college grads attended a women’s school, something special must be happening at these schools. And evidence of just what that “something special” is can be seen in denouement of Sweet Briar’s story.

When Sweet Briar announced its closure in March of 2015, alumnae rallied together to raise over $12 million to save their school, establishing the nonprofit Saving Sweet Briar. This January, the school announced it was receiving the highest number of applicants in 50 years. Taken together, these facts tell a story about the value of women’s schools and the role they will play in the future.

As colleges seek out students as consumers, and potential students regard college marketing campaigns with a wary eye, Sweet Briar is making a case not only for a truly liberal arts experience, but also demonstrating to an already-jaded youth that there are still schools that can elicit this kind of devotion among its alumnae, schools where they can be treated as human beings and students, not as customers.

And this may just be the niche women’s schools find for themselves in the future. They may be the schools that stand up for the value of the liberal arts, who offer impressive financial aid packages. They may be the schools that make a deeply intellectual collegiate experience available to diverse groups of women and continue to provide leadership experiences for young women. And perhaps most significantly, they may be the schools that offer a powerful alumnae network and provide opportunities for mentorship that are so necessary — and so hard to find — for women in the “real world.”

Lizzie Short is a Classics and history scholar, theater lover and writer from the Boston area.