Women’s colleges once numbered in the hundreds, but now they’re a rarity in higher education. The Women’s College Coalition website notes that there were more than 200 such schools in the U.S. during the 1960s, a number that has now dwindled to fewer than 40.
Despite that shrinking pool, advocates of women’s colleges are all aboard.
“What distinguishes us is that there is this sense of commitment to gender equity and gender advocacy,” says Sonya Stephens, president of Mount Holyoke, an all-women’s college in Massachusetts.
Understanding the role of women’s colleges today requires some reflection on the history of American higher education. Prior to the 1960s, many colleges were single-sex institutions. For much of American history, U.S. colleges catered almost entirely to male students, and for a long time only the well-heeled.
“Higher education was designed for men,” explains Mary Schmidt Campbell, president of Spelman College, a historically Black all-women’s school in Georgia. “Women at that time, even wealthy and privileged women, were not expected to go to college. Most of them were educated at home, or in a finishing school.”
As schools increasingly went coeducational, women’s colleges either opened their doors to male students or closed.
More recently, effects of the coronavirus pandemic that rippled across higher education prompted administrators at two women’s colleges to announce closures. Judson College in Alabama and Mills College in California have announced plans to cease operations, citing obstacles such as financial woes, slumping enrollment and added challenges prompted by COVID-19.
In spite of the shrinking numbers of all-women colleges, a rise in application numbers in recent years suggests that the sector remains vibrant.
Leadership and Curriculum at Women’s Colleges
The value of women’s colleges isn’t doubted by their advocates.
“Because the women’s college experience is designed with women at the center, our students are called on early in their college career to speak up, to own their education, and to engage in high impact learning practices that build confidence and competence,” Ann McElaney-Johnson, president of Mount Saint Mary’s University in California and chair of the Women’s College Coalition, wrote in an email. “Women at our colleges are encouraged to think boldly and to speak up — always.”
Women’s colleges often emphasize leadership, designing coursework around that concept. Sweet Briar College in Virginia, for example, redesigned its core curriculum in 2017 to focus on leadership and to require classes such as Women and Gender in the World.
“We have created a curriculum that delivers results in terms of creating the right attributes, or habits of the mind in students that will make them into the kind of people who are collegial, who are democratic, who work with teams, who are collaborative, and who are good decision-makers and people with a sense of accountability,” says Sweet Briar President Meredith Woo.
Woo also notes engagement opportunities at Sweet Briar, where she says about 60% of the student body participates in athletics.
Alumnae Networks at Women’s Colleges
Another feature of women’s colleges is a strong network of alumnae, advocates say.
Woo notes that alumnae help connect students with internships, serve as mentors and offer career support after graduation.
Kate Meacham, a recent Mount Holyoke graduate, seconds the benefits of supportive alumnae: “Even if people don’t know you, they want to support you and help you, whether that’s professionally with advice or celebrating something that you’ve done at the college.”
Sweet Briar serves as an example of alumnae loyalty. When the small school almost shut down in 2015, the alumnae network rallied, winning a legal fight to keep the doors open and raising millions of dollars in a matter of weeks to buoy the college.
Likewise, alumnae rallied around Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 2018 and 2019 when accreditor-related concerns such as finances and long-term viability threatened to close the school’s doors. Hundreds of alumnae, strangers, churches, businesses and even a few celebrities across the nation came to its rescue by donating more than $9 million to a #StandWithBennett campaign in less than three months.
While women’s colleges educate a much smaller number of students than coed schools, Stephens says alumnae are well represented on corporate boards and in the halls of Congress. Famous women’s college graduates include Barnard College alumna Martha Stewart, Wellesley College graduate Hillary Clinton and Mount Holyoke grad Elaine Chao.
Ingrid Hayes, senior vice president for enrollment management at Spelman, says there is a common myth “that a women’s college is limiting and not reflective of the real world.”
It’s a myth she hopes to dispel.
“It’s not limiting, it’s very affirming. It helps you to be confident in your approach to the world,” Hayes says.
Choosing a Women’s College
Meacham applied to 10 colleges, eight of which are coed. But it was Mount Holyoke that won her over.
“For me, it was the academic environment and the support and encouragement that come with that,” Meacham says.
But the women’s college experience, which is found at small liberal arts schools, may not be for every student.
“I think that students who are interested in bigger colleges and maybe Division I athletics, a women’s college is not necessarily the right place for them,” Meacham says. “Also, we (Mount Holyoke) don’t have any Greek life. So I think if people are seeking that out, that’s not necessarily the best fit.”
Stephens offers a similar observation. “If you’re choosing a women’s college, you’re not looking for a party school. Not that there aren’t parties — just to be clear because there are — but it’s a very different mindset.” Even so, she says, students can still have a social life.
Stephens notes a high level of involvement in campus organizations and Mount Holyoke’s membership in the Five College Consortium, which allows students to take classes at other schools nearby, both coed and women’s colleges. This opens a broader social network extending beyond a single college campus.
McElaney-Johnson urges students to remember that, like coed schools, every women’s college is different from its counterparts.
“They should consider the environment. Every school is going to provide a unique social environment whether it is co-ed or a women’s college, and students should look for social fit,” McElaney-Johnson says.
Meacham encourages prospective students to check schools out in person: “I think it’s really important to come and visit campus.”
Regardless of where students choose to pursue a degree, McElaney-Johnson says a women’s college will offer a personalized environment where students can grow as scholars and leaders.
“Students who choose a women’s college will have a unique opportunity to engage in a program designed with women at the center,” she says. “It’s a different experience and powerful experience.”
Top-Ranked Women’s Colleges
Women’s colleges are spread across the U.S. and fall into a number of categories in the U.S. News rankings. Below is a look at the highest-ranked women’s colleges among National Liberal Arts Colleges, a category that a significant number of women’s schools occupy. National Liberal Arts Colleges emphasize undergraduate education and award half or more of their degrees across liberal arts fields.
|SCHOOL (STATE)||U.S. NEWS RANK & CATEGORY||TUITION AND FEES (2020-2021)||ENROLLMENT (FALL 2019)|
|Wellesley College (MA)||4 (tie), National Liberal Arts Colleges||$58,448||2,519|
|Smith College (MA)||15 (tie), National Liberal Arts Colleges||$56,114||2,894|
|Barnard College (NY)||22 (tie), National Liberal Arts Colleges||$57,668||2,631|
|Bryn Mawr College (PA)||28 (tie), National Liberal Arts Colleges||$56,610||1,719|
|Scripps College (CA)||28 (tie), National Liberal Arts Colleges||$59,410||1,109|
|Mount Holyoke College (MA)||34 (tie), National Liberal Arts Colleges||$54,618||2,300|
|Spelman College (GA)||54 (tie), National Liberal Arts Colleges||$29,972||2,120|
|Agnes Scott College (GA)||61 (tie), National Liberal Arts Colleges||$44,250||1,067|
|College of St. Benedict (MN)||96 (tie), National Liberal Arts Colleges||$48,444||1,748|
|Saint Mary’s College (IN)||96 (tie), National Liberal Arts Colleges||$45,720||1,580|
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Correction 01/27/20: A previous version of this article omitted Agnes Scott College from the list of top-ranked women’s colleges.
Update 05/18/21: This article has been updated with new information and data from the 2021 U.S. News Best Colleges rankings.