What do Nancy Pelosi, Drew Faust and Ng’endo Mwangi have in common? Apart from the fact that they are all pioneers in their fields as the first female Speaker of the House, first female President of Harvard University and Kenya’s first woman physician, they also graduated from women’s colleges (Trinity Washington University, Bryn Mawr College and Smith College respectively).

While coeducational institutions may seem like the norm these days, they are a fairly recent development in the long history of higher education.The first higher education institute, New College (now known as Harvard University), was established in 1636 and it was only for men. It was over 100 years later that Salem College was opened, giving women an unprecedented opportunity to pursue their further studies. Coeducational institutions as we know them today, only began to take shape in the 1920s, when Cornell and Harvard started to admit women, a phenomenon that became more common by the 1960s.

Compared to 70 years ago when there were more than 200 women’s colleges in the US, today there are just about 40 left. This is because a number of women’s colleges opted to become coeducational in the 1960s, such as Vassar, Skidmore and Pitzer College. Additionally, a lot of women’s colleges have struggled with financial difficulties, forcing their closure. The latest includes Judson College in Alabama and Mill College in California, both closing due to financial struggles exacerbated by the pandemic.

Even though our society has come a long way from the days when women were denied the right to education, women’s colleges offer a unique educational environment, which is both empowering and supportive. Yet, they do not generate the same interest among our students due to a lack of information about what it means to attend these institutions.

Here are five misconceptions that we often encounter about women’s colleges and why they may be worth reconsidering:

1. A women’s college will give me few opportunities to interact with men

This is the most common and fundamental misunderstanding about women’s colleges. Unlike an all-girls or all-boys school, attending a women’s college does not mean that you will be surrounded only by women. Most women’s colleges have formed consortiums with its neighboring coeducational schools, where students can cross-register for classes. For instance, women at Bryn Mawr College can take classes at Swarthmore College, Haverford College and the University of Pennsylvania, while students at Wellesley College can even complete a dual degree with MIT or the Olin College of Engineering. At Barnard College, which is a sister school of Columbia University, students can sign up for classes, clubs and societies and use the facilities on both campuses freely.

These partnerships mean that many of your classes could still be coeducational and that you will have several opportunities to interact and socialize with students from other campuses.

2. A women’s college will not offer me the same breadth of academic opportunities as a coeducational institution, especially in STEM subjects

Although women’s colleges enroll fewer students than large research universities, the breadth of academic opportunities is comparable to what you would receive at a small liberal arts college. The partnerships with external universities would additionally give you the opportunity to pursue majors and degrees that are not offered at the school. (Read our previous post on
why you should consider applying to a Liberal Arts College
).

Data also shows that women are more likely to major in STEM fields and other subjects that are usually considered “male dominated” in women’s college environments. For example, 40% of students at Smith College, the first women’s college to launch an engineering program, major in a STEM subject, which is double the national average for women.

3. Women’s colleges do not offer as many athletic opportunities as coeducational institutions

Contrary to popular belief, many women’s colleges have sizable athletic departments and a number of competitive sports teams. The women’s sports teams at Mount Holyoke, Smith College and Wellesley College, for example, compete in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC), alongside schools like MIT and Babson College. At Sweet Briar College, moreover, approximately 60% of the student body participates in athletics.

4. Women’s colleges do not have a vibrant social or extracurricular life

Your social and extracurricular life has a lot more to do with the kind of college environment that you choose rather than the dominant gender on your campus. A women’s college in an urban environment, like Barnard College would offer you access to a very different social scene as compared to one in a more rural environment like Mount Holyoke.
That said, women’s colleges do tend to foster a strong sense of community and this is usually embedded in every aspect of the campus life. These colleges often emphasize leadership, whether that is through clubs and activities or through their core curriculum.

5. An all-female environment will give me a limited worldview

Even though student’s from women’s colleges constitute a mere 2% of the college graduate population, these women hold 10% of female CEO positions at S&P 500 companies and a third of female board seats at Fortune 1000 companies. Moreover, 20% of the women in Congress today graduated from women’s colleges.

While these numbers speak for themselves, research shows that female-dominated classrooms result in more student participation, higher levels of active learning, and higher order thinking. Students at women’s colleges therefore tend to be more engaged in their education than women at coeducational ones and these environments encourage them to develop transferable skills, especially leadership, which gives them an edge in the real world.

We recognize that women’s colleges may not be for everyone. However, by challenging some of the common misconceptions, we hope that some of you will remain open to the possibilities. Just like you would with any other prospective college, do your research and, if possible, plan a visit to the colleges you are considering. If you have any further questions, do not hesitate to reach out to us!