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Women's Colleges: Opportunity and Advantage

Women's colleges conjure a stereotype of uniforms, curfews, and never seeing someone with a Y chromosome for four years. If that's what you're expecting, then you really don't know what women's colleges are like.

As you consider potential colleges and universities, why not look at one of the nearly 60 women’s colleges and universities in the United States? These institutions produce self-confident graduates who go out and achieve their goals, who change communities and industries. To discount women’s colleges is to miss out on an incredible opportunity that just might change your life.

Did you know that roughly 25% of the female members of U.S. Congress graduated from a women’s college? Or that graduates of women’s colleges are more than twice as likely as women graduates of co-ed colleges to receive doctoral degrees? Or that they are over-represented in math and science careers?

A survey done years ago by BusinessWeek magazine examined the number of female board members at Fortune 1000 companies. A remarkably high number—33%—attended all-female universities. With so few women’s colleges in the country, this clearly indicates that their graduates achieve remarkably high levels of success. (For more notable women’s college facts, check out the Women’s College Coalition website.)

Students at women’s colleges find day-to-day experiences like going to class, writing papers, and taking exams are largely the same as at co-ed schools, except for the lack of men. But there are a number of less obvious differences. For example, women’s colleges typically offer “teaching faculties,” which means professors are wholly dedicated to the instruction of undergraduate students, an advantage often not found at larger co-ed universities, where teachers must divide their time between undergraduate and graduate students, advising, research, and more.

You’ll also find significantly more female professors and administrators at women’s colleges. The national average for women college professors is about 30%, but at Mills College, in Oakland, California, 60% of the faculty members are women. Students also encounter more female role models, especially at the administrative level, than they might at other schools. The president and many of the deans tend to be women. Typically, men hold the vast majority of these positions at co-ed institutions.

Seeing female leaders is one of the subtle differences between women’s colleges and co-ed colleges. Indeed, all-female campuses encourage the development of leadership skills, so they offer many opportunities for students to become leaders through student government, residence hall council, clubs and organizations, varsity sports teams, and more. It’s important to ask the colleges you’re considering: How many women hold leadership positions in student clubs and organizations? How many are involved in student government? Cocurricular activities are an important aspect of your college years, offering a preview of many real world activities; you want to make the most of them.

Women’s colleges strive to create successful learning environments for women. One study in particular—still widely discussed today, in fact—features videotaped teachers of both genders instructing co-ed and all-women classes. Though each teacher (both men and women) said they thought they had taught every class identically, the recordings revealed several differences. The all-female classes had ample student interaction and dialogue, and widespread participation. In the co-ed class, teachers of both sexes tended to call on boys more than twice as often as they called on girls. Finally, female students were not challenged the same way as their male counterparts, weakening their educational experience. When the professors called on the female students, they asked only factual questions—the more thought-provoking questions requiring critical analysis they posed to male students.

At women’s colleges, you may be less likely to encounter the competitive atmosphere found at co-ed schools. Why? Because women tend to study cooperatively, and all-female schools provide supportive learning environments that encourage outstanding scholarship. You’re more likely to find classmates who want to help you do your best, which will ultimately help you achieve your goals.

It really is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in an environment completely designed by and for people like you: amazing women! Women’s colleges value female experiences and perspectives—not only yours, but of all the women who came before you. Consider what it’s like to study subjects through a woman’s perspective. You might choose to study history by analyzing handiwork patterns or learn what it was like to board tenants to make ends meet. Think of studying Early European Renaissance Art and learning that there were also women master artists in the 1400s and 1500s, a fact so often overlooked. The woman’s perspective is frequently neglected in history books because wealthy, educated white men wrote much of recorded history. At a women’s college, the curricula covers the achievements of both sexes. It adds a new and perhaps invaluable dimension to the undergraduate experience.

And it doesn’t end at graduation. Women’s college graduates report greater satisfaction with their college experiences and connect well with other women’s college alumnae. Once you join the legion of women’s college graduates, you become part of a strong alumnae network, one that can help you find an internship or even a full-time post-grad job. That network lasts a lifetime.

You might get something out of a women’s college that couldn’t happen anywhere else. You could love the experience and change in unexpected ways. So before ruling out a women’s college, why not visit one? Talk with current students and listen what they have to say about their experience. You might be surprised by what you learn.


Joan Jaffe is the Associate Dean of Admission at Mills College in Oakland, California. 

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