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Single-Sex institutions

Historical Contribution, Characteristics of Contemporary Women's Colleges, Contemporary Importance of Women's Colleges

At the beginning of the twenty-first century there are only two men's colleges in the United States–Wabash College in Indiana and Deep Springs in California, although there are approximately eighty women's colleges. For all intents and purposes, men's colleges seem to have outlived their function, although women's colleges continue to offer women students a worthwhile postsecondary option. Following a brief history of single-sex education for men and women, this entry explores the characteristics of women's colleges and the outcomes associated with attending these colleges. Given the small numbers of men's colleges, similar research has not been conducted on these institutions.

Historical Contribution

Single-sex colleges and universities have a long and storied history in American higher education. The original colleges in the United States, including Harvard (1636), William and Mary (1693), Yale College (1716), and the College of New Jersey at Princeton (1746), were founded to educate men only. During this era, formal educational options for women were nonexistent. It was widely believed that women were intellectually inferior to men and that educating women might lead to health problems. Because higher education in the colonial period was aimed at preparing men for the clergy and for leadership, there was no real impetus to provide higher education for women.

In the early 1800s several seminaries for women only were founded to provide girls with a liberal education, equivalent to a high school education. Graduates of these seminaries were prepared to be mothers, wives, and teachers. Women's seminaries were not immediately classified as colleges, although schools such as that founded by Emma Willard (established in 1821) modeled their curriculum, in large part, after that offered at the most prestigious men's colleges of the day. Other women-only institutions, such as those founded by Catherine Beecher and Mary Lyon, became prototypes for modern women's colleges.

There are several women-only institutions that claim to be the first "college." Georgia Female College was chartered by the state legislature in 1836; its curriculum, however, was more similar to a high school than a college. In 1853 Mary Sharp College in Tennessee was founded; its curriculum looked very similar to the four-year degree program offered at the men's colleges. Similarly, Elmira Female College in New York, chartered in 1855, offered a true collegiate course. In the early days of women's access to higher education, single-sex institutions were the norm for both men and women. By 1860 there were approximately 100 women's colleges in existence, about half of which offered a collegiate-level curriculum. Approximately 67 percent of the existing colleges and universities at this time were for men only.

By 1850 several institutions, including Oberlin, began experimenting with coeducation. The passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act after the Civil War led to the creation of land-grant institutions, all of which were coeducational. The original colonial colleges continued to operate for men only. By 1870 there were 582 colleges in the United States, of which 343 were for men only, 70 were for women only, and 169 were coeducational. By 1890 the number of men's colleges reached its peak–400 institutions. At this time, there were 465 coeducational colleges and 217 women's colleges. The bulk of the single-sex institutions for both men and women were founded in the South and Northeast. In the Midwest and West, coeducation was the norm during this era. The women's colleges in the South were widely perceived as "finishing schools" and were not taken seriously by many in higher education.

After the Civil War, the women's colleges of the Northeast, especially the Seven Sisters (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Wellesley, Vassar, and Radcliffe), wished to demonstrate that women were as capable of achieving advanced education as were men. These institutions replicated the classical curriculum of the most elite men's colleges also located in the Northeast. Indeed, compared to other educational options for women through normal schools and coeducational institutions, the curriculum at these women's colleges focused on liberal education rather than on pre-professional programs. These women's colleges not only replicated the curriculum of the men's colleges, they also required students to meet the admission standards of the men's schools. This created enrollment problems, as few women had the necessary background in Greek and Latin. Finding qualified faculty willing to teach at these women's colleges was also a significant problem in the early days. One solution to these dilemmas was the founding of coordinate colleges, institutions that shared the faculty and curriculum of men's colleges but operated as separate institutions. These coordinate colleges, including Radcliffe, Pembroke, and Barnard, were considered women's colleges because the male and female students did not take classes together and because the institutions had different administrators. The Seven Sisters served as an enduring model of high-quality education for women.

Between 1890 and 1910 enrollment at women's colleges increased by 348 percent, while the gain of female students at coeducational colleges was 438 percent. Over a similar period, male student attendance in college increased by 214 percent. By the turn of the century, coeducation had become the norm for both men and women, although the most elite institutions in the country continued to be available only to men. Among the arguments in favor of coeducation were that separate education was economically wasteful, that women were equal to men and should therefore be educated together, that single-sex institutions were unnatural, and that coeducation would be helpful in taming the spirits of young men. By 1920 women students represented 47 percent of the student body in colleges and universities. Indeed, the 1920s were a high point in women's education, and in many cases women outnumbered men in colleges. During this era, 74 percent of the colleges and universities were coeducational and the vast majority of women in higher education attended these institutions. Women's colleges, however, continued to attract sufficient numbers of students.

The 1930s through 1950s were marked by a return to a more traditional view about the role of women in society, a view that emphasized women in the home and family. In the 1950s there were 228 men's colleges, 267 women's colleges, and 1,313 coeducational institutions. Indeed, by 1950 the percentage of women in higher education dropped to a low of 30 percent, and enrollment at many of the single-sex institutions–both men's and women's colleges–began to decline precipitously.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a more pronounced shift away from single-sex institutions toward coeducation. During this period, the most prestigious exclusively male colleges and universities began to admit women and many women's colleges also became coeducational. Many of the women's colleges that decided not to admit men closed due to financial exigency during this period. Indeed, many small, private liberal arts colleges, both coeducational and single-sex, closed during this era. To many, the replacement of single-sex education with coeducation was seen as part of women's attainment of parity with men. In fact, many believe that the shift away from single-sex institutions to coeducational ones served both sexes better. Some argued that if one believed that women should attend women's colleges, it somehow implied that women are different or inferior to men. Others argued that women who attend single-sex institutions do not learn to deal with men and are therefore less ready to compete and function in the "real world." As a result, the number of men's colleges declined to only two institutions while the number of women's colleges declined to fewer than eighty institutions. The women's colleges that survived the decline in the 1970s transformed themselves from women's colleges to "colleges for women." The difference between a women's college and a college for women is subtle; but essentially, in order to survive, women's colleges rededicated themselves and their missions to serve women and their unique needs. As colleges for women, these institutions were more purposeful in regard to the needs of their women students as opposed to operating in the same manner as a coeducational institution without the men. The Women's College Coalition, founded in 1972, was created to support these institutions and to increase the visibility and acceptability of women's colleges.

Characteristics of Contemporary Women's Colleges

Women's colleges educate fewer than 1 percent of all women attending postsecondary institutions and award 1 percent of all degrees conferred–25,000 degrees in 1998. Estimates are that fewer than 5 percent of college-going high school seniors will even apply to attend a women's college. Women's colleges tend to be small, ranging in size from 94 full-time students to 5,000 full-time students. Although all women's colleges are private institutions, more than half of the existing women's colleges have a religious affiliation, most often with the Roman Catholic Church (33%). In terms of geographic location, almost half of the women's colleges are located in the northeastern United States, while 33 percent are located in the South. There are three women's colleges in California, and the rest are scattered around the country.

Although the most selective women's colleges, those known as the Seven Sisters, receive the most attention in the media and in the research literature, women's colleges represent a diverse array of institutions. The Seven Sisters are the oldest, most selective, and most well endowed of the women's colleges, although two of the sisters, Vassar and Radcliffe, are no longer women's colleges. There are also two historically black four-year women's colleges, and six two-year women's colleges. In addition, seventeen women's colleges grant master's degrees, while forty-seven grant bachelor's degrees. Women's colleges range in selectivity from very selective to nonselective. From a resource perspective, the women's colleges also vary greatly–from those with healthy endowments (including the Seven Sisters) to those institutions that are entirely dependent on tuition revenue to cover operating expenses.

Though women's colleges do not represent a single mold, they do share some common traits. For example, they serve women of color and nontraditional-aged women in higher proportions than comparable coeducational institutions. The explanation for this is twofold. First, serving women, in all their diversity, is a major component of the mission of many women's colleges. Second, in order for the existing women's colleges to survive with their original missions still intact, many had to be creative in attracting and retaining women students. As fewer than 5 percent of high school women will even consider applying to a women's college, this means that many women's colleges have had to focus their attention on attracting older women, part-time students, and transfer students. Women's colleges are also more likely than their coeducational counterparts to grant undergraduate degrees to women in the more male-dominated fields as compared to similar coeducational institutions.

Contemporary Importance of Women's Colleges

The contemporary importance of women's colleges outweighs their number and size. A wide array of research projects, using both quantitative and qualitative data, have demonstrated that women's colleges are among the most accessible and promoting environments wherein women are taken seriously and ultimately experience success. Specifically, research suggests that women's colleges have a direct, positive impact on their students. Compared to women at coeducational institutions, for example, students at women's colleges are more satisfied with their overall college experience, are more likely to major in nontraditional fields, and express higher levels of self-esteem and leadership skills. Researchers have also found that students who have attended women's colleges are more likely than their coeducational counterparts to graduate, to have high expectations of themselves, to attend graduate school, and to be successful in their adult lives.

There are some critics who have questioned the results of individual studies, especially those studies that focus on the impact of attending a women's college on career and postgraduate outcomes. These critics focus on those studies that use institutions rather than individuals as the unit of analysis and the fact that the studies cannot adequately control for individual student background characteristics. In addition, some critics suggest that the relative success of graduates of women's college may be a dated phenomenon. In other words, when women students began to have access to prestigious men's colleges did claims about women's colleges remain true? This question assumes that the success of women's colleges is because the "best" women students couldn't attend the "best" schools in the country. It also assumes that studies of women's colleges focus on the most elite of these institutions. A third critique about the research on women's colleges is that it fails to account for the self-selection of students. In other words, some suggest that women who choose to attend women's colleges are predestined to be successful and that one cannot credit the institutions at all for the outcomes produced.

Proponents of women's colleges counter such critiques by examining the literature on women's colleges in its totality rather than looking at one study at a time. They contend that research is most powerful when conclusions are drawn from a wide variety of studies using different methods, sources of data, and time periods. In reviewing the literature the majority of studies on women's colleges, including those that control for both institutional and individual characteristics of students, come to the same conclusion. As such, although it is impossible to randomly assign students to attend either a women's college or coeducational college, advocates of women-only institutions maintain that the self-selection argument appears specious. According to these researchers, it is not only dated studies that make claim to the outcomes associated with women's colleges, as studies using contemporary college attendees also come to the same conclusions. Given the totality of the research on women's colleges, proponents conclude that despite differences between methodologies and approach, the extent of overlap, the consistency, and the corroboration in the research findings are so great as to warrant the conclusion that a woman attending an all-women's college, compared with her coeducational counterpart, is more likely to achieve positive outcomes, such as having higher educational aspirations, attaining a graduate degree, entering a sex-atypical career, and achieving prominence in her field.


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PASCARELLA, ERNEST T., and TERENZINI, PATRICK T. 1991. How College Affects Students: Findings and Insights from Twenty Years of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

RUDOLPH, FREDERICK. 1962. The American College and University: A History. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

SOLOMON, BARBARA. 1985. In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

TIDBALL, ELIZABETH; SMITH, DARYL; TIDBALL, CHARLES; and WOLF-WENDEL, LISA. 1999. Taking Women Seriously: Lessons and Legacies for Higher Education from Women's Colleges. Phoenix, AZ: ACE/Oryx Press.


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