By Sandra Doran
We’re just days away from watching the accomplished, inspiring Kamala Harris become the next vice president, and it doesn’t escape me that this thrilling milestone comes at the same time the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 1.1 million American workers have left the pandemic-challenged labor force — and 865,000 (80%) of them are women. The contrasts of this moment provide some context for understanding the significance of women’s colleges, and for championing the important place they hold in our world.
The Women’s College Coalition counts just 36 American women’s colleges, down from 46 six years ago and about 230 in 1960. Our numbers have dwindled against a backdrop of social, political, and economic shifts for women, shifts that have resulted in more options and opportunities across the board, but especially in the realm of higher education, where women students have outnumbered men for five decades, prompting many to ask: what purpose do today’s women’s colleges serve?
A recent study by Kathryn A. E. Enke, published by the Women’s College Coalition, looked at access, opportunity, and outcomes at today’s American women’s colleges and compared them with coed liberal-arts colleges and public universities. Her findings reveal a modern profile of women’s college students that may surprise those who still view these schools as places where America’s elite daughters are groomed to uphold the professional, and personal, status of their forebears.
Rather than resembling the student population at private liberal-arts colleges, women’s college students are demographically akin to students at public colleges and universities, meaning they’re older, more diverse, and less economically advantaged. While we still imagine that the average college student is 18 to 24 years old, that age bracket includes only 50.6% of students at women’s colleges; at private liberal-arts colleges, it’s 90.9%, and at public universities, 77.5%.
More than half of students at women’s colleges identify as students of color (51.2%), compared to 38.5% at private liberal-arts colleges and 43.6% at public universities. Enke also found that full-time, first-time undergraduates at women’s colleges are more likely to have been awarded a Pell Grant than students at liberal-arts colleges (43.2% vs. 32.6%), meaning they are more likely to come from families with limited financial means. At Bay Path, 56% of our students are Pell-eligible.
Why is this significant? According to an analysis published by the Pell Institute, low-income, first-generation students disproportionately come from ethnic and racial minority backgrounds, and they tend to be older, less likely to receive financial support from parents, and more likely to have multiple obligations outside college, all factors that require a more intentional and supportive college experience.
One real power of women’s colleges exists in the influence of academic and social experiences, which the Pell Institute describes as “studying in groups, interacting with faculty and other students, participating in extracurricular activities, and using support services.” These experiences are shown to foster success in college, and intentionally, repeatedly, and enthusiastically creating a learning environment and culture that embeds these experiences into the educational model is what defines women’s colleges.
Our schools don’t just shepherd women to their diplomas; we create a distinct and dedicated space for women to build intellectual confidence, enduring community, and unwavering tenacity — because we know they’re going to need every last bit of it as they pursue their ambitions.
Enke’s research also measured retention and completion rates at women’s colleges at 62.2%, private liberal-arts colleges (which tend to serve the most economically privileged students) at 68.9%, and public schools at 54%. We’re proud to note that the retention rate of all traditional undergraduates at Bay Path is 77%.
The past year has laid bare the persistent circumstances that continue to disrupt women’s ambitions, impede our incomes, and restrict our potential. With women’s colleges up against the financial and demographic headwinds shaking the entire higher-ed sector, we must dig deeper, hold faster, and aim higher, while keeping the initial mission of women’s education at the center of all we do: to expand access, create space, and nurture the intellect for women who deserve to realize their dreams.
Sandra Doran is president of Bay Path University.