Redefining ‘Relevance’

The case for women’s colleges

04/01/2012  |  Mary Amelia Taylor
Women’s Colleges
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Today when much emphasis in higher education is placed on “relevance,” it may be surprising to some that women’s colleges still exist. According to the Women’s College Coalition, there are only 48 left in the United States. Many high school students seem to find the prospect of all-female education an old-fashioned idea they have to overcome if they even consider attending women’s colleges. In fact, only about three percent of high school girls add women’s colleges to their lists of college choices.

The “finishing school” moniker, female-only population, and prospective students’ fear of not being able to “compete” with men when they graduate tend to be some factors steering students’ interest away from women-only education. If there doesn’t seem to be much demand, what’s the draw of women’s colleges? How do women’s colleges continue to prove their relevance in today’s higher-education market, when many have become coeducational to stay alive?

Studies show us that prospective college students seem to desire the same experiences from any institution they choose to attend: good academic facilities and quality teaching, personal interaction with faculty, and a sense of community among students, with plenty of opportunities for community service. Many women’s colleges are focused microcosms of this ideal college experience — campus-wide “honors colleges,” if you will. These institutions aim to offer holistic education for all of their students, whom they hope will be successful, purpose-driven competitors in graduate schools and the job market. By our reckoning, women’s colleges are still succeeding.

Students at female-only institutions embrace higher levels of self-esteem, more academic satisfaction, and more leadership skills development than their counterparts at coed institutions. According to the 2011 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), students at women’s colleges reported consistently (and in some cases, significantly) higher levels of satisfaction with benchmark areas of their college experience than students at coeducational institutions. For instance, perception of academic challenge at women’s colleges, including emphasis placed on synthesizing ideas and producing quality academic papers, hovered nearly 10 percent higher than the perceived level at other NSSE-surveyed institutions. Surveyed perceptions of active and collaborative learning at women’s colleges yielded similar results. These reports seem to indicate a sense of comfort, of belonging, in students’ learning environments that appears to be unique to women’s colleges.

A reason for this sense of belonging may be that at women’s colleges, all of the institutions’ resources are available for a specific group of learners: women. Funds that would sometimes go to popular men’s activities, particularly men’s sports, on coed campuses are funneled to facilities, academics, student government, campus life, and women’s athletics. At a women’s college, even facility design resources can be focused specifically on women’s education. When classroom spaces at Judson College were last renovated, the architects designing the spaces consulted studies on how women learn best and incorporated those findings into their designs. The facilities include classroom chairs designed to fit women’s bodies and textured wallpaper of specific intellectually-stimulating colors. Even the campus fitness center has hydraulic weight equipment, designed to best complement women’s muscles. This serious attention to creating uniquely feminine spaces adds to the sense of personal, academic, and social belonging for students at women’s colleges.

In a comfortable and nurturing — and thus empowering — learning environment, students are free to speak up in class and share their ideas as they think critically and often collaboratively. Certainly, studies have shown that students at women’s colleges participate more fully in and out of class than do their coeducational counterparts. Students at women’s colleges can also move beyond gendered expectations concerning fields of study and careers. Students at women’s colleges pursue majors (and subsequent graduate degrees) in the sciences in much higher numbers than women who attend co-ed institutions.

Out-of-classroom learning experiences also often challenge traditional ideas about what women are “supposed” to do; Judson College students regularly initiate and participate in construction projects at a nearby park and homes in their community.

Differences in women’s colleges and coed institutions also surface strikingly in the areas of student government and campus life. Women are traditionally underrepresented in leadership positions at coeducational institutions, but at a women’s college, all student government association positions are held by women, and all delegates to institutional committees are women. Students are encouraged that their ideas and voices will be taken seriously, and alumnae use that confidence in graduate programs and successful careers.

Along with the development of leadership skills, many prospective college students hope to be involved in community service projects. Undistracted service is often a large part of women’s colleges’ campus activities. In 2009, 18 women’s colleges were named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll, four of those “with distinction.” The commitment to service at many women’s colleges reveals the seriousness of these institutions when holistic education for young women is concerned. Some colleges take that education a step further by adding religious affiliation, and we’ve found that even Christian higher education seems to be in its best form in a female setting. At Judson College, weekly Chapel services and faith-based service learning opportunities further strengthen a close-knit community of women leaders who think intentionally about and act on what they believe.

Enthusiastic and generous alumnae support of most women’s colleges reveals that what women’s colleges say they offer is entirely credible. Alumnae place high value on their education at women’s colleges, and believe that other women deserve that opportunity as well; 96 percent of recent Judson graduates said they’d choose the same education again.

Though some still say that all-female education is old-fashioned, women’s colleges are strategically focused on offering women what they want in education — a chance to succeed and develop to their fullest personal, academic, and social potential. In that way, women’s colleges offer some of the most relevant educational experiences for women today, as they always have. They are not retreats from coed life or academically “fluffy” colleges, but rigorously challenging institutions that empower women toward the pursuit of purposeful lives. For those concerned about competing, ask the current U.S. Secretary of State, recent Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, the first woman justice on the Alabama Supreme Court, former CEO of MTV Networks, or the director of Wright Laboratories (the smart-weapons lab for the United States Air Force), all women’s college graduates.

Leah Pope, 1996 Judson College alumna and senior software engineer at SPARTA, Inc. in Centreville, VA, says of her women’s college experience, “You’re surrounded by other young women who are just like you — excelling academically and holding leadership positions. The experience gave me confidence that I’ve carried with me my whole life.”

We think that’s relevance enough.

Mary Amelia Taylor is the Marketing and Web Communications Specialist at Judson College in Marion, AL. She graduated from Judson with a B.A. in English and History in 2009, and recently completed an M.A. in Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. For more information, visit www.judson.edu.
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