Stronger than Barbie: women’s colleges and the education of girls

On the campus of Mills College. Credit elisa_piper via Flickr

On the campus of Mills College. Credit: elisa_piper via Flickr

This week I attended a Share, Learn and Connect meeting arranged by WACAC, the Western Association for College Admission Counseling of which I am a member. The event took place on the lovely campus of Mills College in Oakland, and for many counselors this may have been their first visit to a women’s college. It was not only the beautiful campus that struck many, but also the reminder that women’s colleges like these are still very much alive and thriving. Started in 1852, Mills College has in fact grown up alongside the state of California itself – it claims to be the oldest women’s college west of the Rockies.


Women’s colleges were established in the US in the nineteenth century to prepare young women for the roles society thought them fit: as wives, mothers, teachers, and sometimes as social reformers in movements to abolish slavery or promote temperance. Whatever the intent, these colleges helped to expose young women to fields of science, mathematics and law from which they had been excluded (and a commitment to social reform remains very much alive at many). They are scattered across the country, from Scripps in California to Sweet Briar and Mary Baldwin in Virginia.


As more educational opportunities opened up for women, however, enrollment at women’s colleges suffered. Yale, Princeton and Harvard became co-educational in the late 1960’s. Women’s colleges faced economic and political pressure to do the same, and indeed many did. California’s Pitzer College became co-educational in 1970. Radcliffe College began a slow merger with Harvard while Vassar, another prominent member of the Seven Sisters colleges, opted to admit men rather than move and merge with Yale.


But many other women’s colleges chose the stay the course and adapt. Barnard in New York retained its unique relationship with Columbia University even after the latter began to admit women in 1983. Mills College now has an integrated graduate school. Bryn Mawr has a cooperative relationship with nearby co-educational Haverford; Smith is in the Five College Consortium with surrounding colleges such as Amherst; and Scripps similarly belongs to the Claremont Consortium.


Women’s colleges argue that their mission remains as urgent as ever. After all, even where women are increasingly in the majority, they still lag behind in wages and leadership roles – in her 2005 Commencement address to the College of Saint CatherineSusan Lennon pointed out that women in business held most managerial jobs but only 16% of corporate officer roles, 10% of executive roles such as CEO, and only about 5% of top earning jobs. Advocates for women’s colleges argue that such disparities underscore the need for educational experiences that seek to empower young women and foster their leadership skills.


Several studies have shown how women’s colleges appear to be delivering the goods:

  • study of data drawn from the National Survey of Student Engagement results found that students at women’s colleges “are advantaged in terms of the nature and frequency with which they engage in educationally purposeful activities and in the progress they make in a variety of desirable outcomes of college.”
  • A longitudinal survey of alumnae perspectives and outcomes, commissioned by the Women’s College Coalition, found that the graduates of women’s colleges are as likely as graduates of other liberal arts colleges to study abroad, find internships and have mentoring relationships with faculty. But the survey showed that alumnae of women’s colleges believe more than alumnae of other liberal arts colleges do, that their college experiences allowed them to develop self-confidence and initiative, be involved in publications or student government (while at co-educational campuses women continue to be underrepresented in campus leadership), be prepared for their first job, and learn to be a leader, solve problems, relate to people of different backgrounds, work as part of a team, write effectively, and be politically or socially aware. They are also more likely to hold graduate degrees.
  • Last year at the NACAC conference presenters of a panel on “How to get your girls to consider women’s colleges,” quoted at length from the work of Linda Sax, author of The Gender Gap in College. Sax shows the different impact that a poor choice of college can have on academic outcomes for boys and girls. In a situation where students feel that the professor does not take them seriously, women students are, for example, far more likely to downgrade their sense of well-being, degree aspirations and math ability.

Women’s colleges are not the most appropriate choice for everyone, but the best argument for attending may simply be the experience of women themselves. As a recent graduate of Mt. Holyoke put it in her posting on this blog, “After months at a women’s college, the first time someone treats you like a ‘chick’ and not as an adult with equal intellectual value, it smarts. Sexism is all the more apparent when you’ve fallen out of the habit.” Or as the t-shirt worn by a young woman on a Mills College poster proclaims, “Smarter than Barbie, Stronger than Ken.”

Summer Studies . . .

Summer vacation is when we take a deep breath after a long year and relish a sense of wellbeing after the strains of the school year. We vegetate mindlessly in the sun and we laze days away in a hammock. But we also catch up on our reading, argue with friends about ideas that have absolutely nothing to do with homework and linger over a volume of poetry that was never required for school. Rather than putting our minds on hold, the summer gives us time to recover a joy in exploring ideas for no better reason than our interest in them.

This is indeed exactly what high school students need to do with their summers, and one way to do so is by attending a youth program with like-minded peers.

But in deciding to send a student to one of the many such programs offered in the US and across the world, parents often have far more functional intentions – they hope quite bluntly that attending pre-college at College X, or a few weeks helping the poor in a developing country, or traveling to exotic locales will impress admission officers and increase the student’s chance of admission at College X. Having countless students pursuing summer programs for the same set of reasons has, however, helped to dilute the impact of this strategy. Yet there remain excellent reasons for students to seek out a summer program that excites and intrigues them:

  • the opportunity to explore an academic field – economics, archaeology, computer science – with peers that share that interest
  • to travel to a new city or a far-flung country
  • to meet students from all over the country and even the world, enlarging their perspective
  • to develop their English language skills if that is not their native tongue
  • to expand their sense of service to those far outside their own community
  • to get a taste of college life and remind them of the adventure ahead
  • to leave home and begin to develop an empowering sense of independence and self-sufficiency

Will any of this have any impact on their college applications? Definitely. But the impact will in fact be far more intriguing than many parents anticipate. Pre-college programs are offered either by for-profit organizations or as a money-generating venture by a unit within a college that is completely separate from the admission office of that institution. Doing such a program at College X therefore does not in itself improve a student’s chances of admission at that college. But that does not mean that admission officers will not notice that a student attended. Instead they will notice:

  • because it suggests that a student is actually interested enough in the college to spend time there – a form of “demonstrated interest” that colleges have to care about as they fret about their admissions yield
  • that the student has enough intellectual engagement with a subject to spend time on it
  • that the student has the social and emotional maturity to spend time away from home
  • that an international student has sufficient English skills to cope at an American college

Colleges will of course take note of the academic and social growth that attending such a program can generate. But the value of a summer program extends far beyond a college application. Instead, the student will have spent a week or more of their summer having fun, making new friends and talking about new ideas, while expanding the horizons of their world and of themselves.

For an overview of summer programs, please download the Summer Programs PDF on our Resources page.

“Get Thee to a Nunnery . . .”: My Experience at a Women’s College

My college search, no doubt, resembled that of many of you reading this.  A couple “safeties”, a “reach”, and the ones where I had a fighting chance.  Good schools, with attractive campuses, dependable financial aid, etc.

Fast-forward a few months, and I’d been waitlisted at Georgetown, Dartmouth and Brown and accepted to three of my eight schools . . . all of them women’s colleges. All of them wonderful places, but I had applied in spite of the gender specifications.  Going past the obvious problems it could pose for dating, I had always enjoyed close friendships with boys and my brother, so four years in such a decidedly female environment was not something I was very excited about.  Thankfully, the past few years have changed my mind.

I’m trying to steer away from the words you’ll see on every seven-sisters website, but they really do apply.  Women’s colleges are liberating, empowering, and supportive, not because they’re free of some oppressive, patriarchal dark side of the force or anything, but because they’re intellectual environments where gender biases have little place.  Most of us, by the time we finish high school, have experienced some situation where a teacher dishes out extra credit more often to one sex or the other, or have been frustrated trying to get support for a women’s sports team, or some similar problem.  The “boys club” attitude that we can still encounter in various arenas simply doesn’t apply when there aren’t any boys.

Not that four years could pass without ever coming into contact with men, as if you were attending a collegiate nunnery.  Many women’s colleges are in consortiums, where it is possible to take classes at neighboring co-ed schools, and co-ed students can take classes on campus.  In an urban environment you could meet all sorts of interesting people off campus, and even the most rural women’s colleges have a large number of men around on the weekends when boyfriends and buddies come to visit.  Regardless of what any school-sponsored website tells you, “meeting men” is never going to be as easy as at a co-ed school, but in my time at Mount Holyoke I’ve dated and made male friends just fine.  (It goes without saying that if it’s not men you’re interested in, women’s colleges are perfect.)

Not having men around as much can lead to a certain amount of social-awareness as well.  After months at a women’s college, the first time someone treats you like a “chick” and not an adult with equal intellectual value, it smarts.  Sexism is all the more apparent when you’ve fallen out of the habit.  Not everyone will have the same reaction –I’ve seen women get furious at this treatment, and women who laugh it off.  For myself, I’m thankful that I’ve learned to recognize it as unusual and unfair.  I’ve become far pickier about the men I spend time with, and am happier because of it.

I can’t recommend women’s colleges to everyone.  What I can say is that, if you give it a chance like I did, you can come to really appreciate it.  Women’s colleges might not be the most empowering experience of your life –that could be getting your first big promotion at the job of your dreams, nailing an audition, or doing a solo trip around the world.  But women’s colleges will help you get there, and cheer you on along the way.  As far as I’ve been able to make out, the goal of every women’s college is to give you the self confidence and spine to succeed, and if they can provide a rugby team or lab facilities or an excellent library along the way, that’s even better.

Sydney Penny

Mount Holyoke ‘12

Congratulations, you have been accepted! Now what?

Many students who applied to regular decision programs now have a big envelope (or more likely these days, an email!) in hand telling them that they have been accepted to a school. Congratulations! Those who got good news from their dream school feel like they were handed the keys to the kingdom. For most, having at least one offer of admission is an enormous relief – let’s face it, one school is all it takes!

But as that good news keeps on streaming in, you may now find that you have difficult choices to make between those schools that looked good earlier on. So keep the following in mind:

***This is all wonderful. After being a supplicant at the mercy of admissions committees, the ball is now firmly in your court. Enjoy it – soon you will be a first year and at the bottom of the college totem pole again!

***Seek out the information you need to make your choice. Phone financial aid offices and talk to them about your aid package. They may not change their minds, but you won’t know unless you ask.

***Try to attend accepted student events, even if you had visited before. It changes the experience to know that college is yours if you wish! Also, if your earlier visit was over summer, a campus feels very different when it is in term.

***When you do visit, hone in on the things you care about – student organizations, research facilities, teaching faculty, or dorm rooms. Don’t confine yourself only to a few new friends or the set program, but rather explore the campus, talk to students, or attend a class.

***During your visit, have a good time but behave with propriety – schools would rather retract their offer of admission than end up with a freshman whose lack of good sense marks him or her for serious trouble.

***Don’t doubt the decisions of the admission officers and wonder if you have what it takes to succeed. If they had doubts, they would have informed you quite bluntly!

***But don’t harbor the illusion that you now have made it either – college is meant to challenge us because that is how we grow.

And then get back to senior year, relishing the last days of high school, preparing yourself academically for college, and enjoying what may be your last months living at home. Above all, stay safe!