Hillary Clinton is likely to be the first woman nominated by a major party for president and it should be no surprise to anyone that she graduated from Wellesley College — a women’s college.
The list of “firsts” among women’s college graduates is long and impressive. It includes Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to represent a major U.S. political party as a candidate for vice president; Katharine Graham, the first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company; Nancy Pelosi, first woman Speaker of the House; and Madeleine Albright, the first woman secretary of state. Others include the first women to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church, to serve as a general in the U.S. Army, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and to lead Harvard University.
Closer to home, Hartford’s first female mayor, Ann Uccello, graduated from the University of Saint Joseph and Ella Grasso, the state’s first woman governor, graduated from Mount Holyoke College.
While graduates of women’s colleges represent only 2 percent of the population with a college degree, the data shows they are highly represented in positions of power, leadership, innovation and creativity. The Women’s College Coalition reports that 30 percent of the women on Businessweek’s list of “rising stars in corporate America” are women’s college graduates. Likewise, a third of the Fortune 1,000 female board members graduated from single gender institutions.
It may appear that this phenomenon reflects the past, a time when women were denied admission to the nation’s most competitive colleges and universities. With these barriers no longer in place, are women’s colleges still relevant? Is there value in today’s world for a women’s only college experience?
To assess the impact of a women’s college education, we need to look at two forces. First, the degree of self-selection at play. A 2015 study by UCLA concluded that women’s colleges “attract students who are especially ambitious, intellectually curious, creative and social change‐oriented.”
Then there is the actual education, as reported by students. How do the experiences and outcomes of women’s college graduates differ from their peers at co-educational institutions? The Women’s Colleges Comparative Alumnae Research Project found that graduates of women’s colleges report a greater level of participation while in school — in internships, extracurricular activities, community service, and campus leadership. They also carry this into their post-college lives as community service volunteers and leaders of nonprofit organizations.
Women’s college students are also more likely to graduate in four years (or less) and to complete a graduate degree. They are more likely to report that their colleges helped them develop lasting skills: specifically, to write and speak effectively; to think analytically and creatively; and to relate to people of different backgrounds. Perhaps most important, they said the women’s college experience integrated values and ethics in the learning, which helped them to develop moral principles that continue to guide their actions.
Overall, women’s college graduates were more likely to feel the financial investment made in college was worth the expense. They also report feeling safe and comfortable in the single gender environment. Students at most women’s college interact with male students through special programs and co-curricular activities. University of Saint Joseph students take coed classes at 10 other colleges and universities in the Greater Hartford region, through the Hartford Consortium. While on their home campus, though, they use residence halls, facilities, services and activities that are designed specifically for women. They learn in classrooms, studios and labs where women fill every leadership role, are at the top of every class, and seize every opportunity available.
Interestingly, recent reports show that enrollment at women’s colleges is on the rise. Of the nation’s 44 women’s colleges, 60 percent saw an increase for the current academic year and three schools reported record enrollment. The University of Saint Joseph experienced a 42 percent increase in first-year students.
Whether this indicates a renaissance of sorts, the data reveals numerous and varied benefits from attending a women’s college. In a world where exceptional young women have a host of academic options, a growing number are choosing to attend a women’s college — not by default, but by choice — a choice the data says is a smart one.
Rhona Free is president of the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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