On the Women’s College Question

I spent all last week thinking about single-sex institutions. I’m working for USA Today CollegeĀ this semester and my article last week was about single-sex schools weighing going co-ed.

As a Bryn Mawr student, I obviously have a lot of respect for single-sex education, so my story took on a life of its own. I had fifteen pages of notes for a six-hundred word article. And it’s the type of story I went let die. I’ve continued to question people all weekend about single-sex education. A friend who graduated from Bryn Mawr last year came to visit and I pestered her for a half hour about her time at a women’s college prepared her for the business world. My brother’s best friend is attending a former men’s college, now co-ed, but lives in all male housing. How’s that impacted him?

One of my friend half-jokingly said I could turn this into a book. And I think I probably could. I can’t stop thinking about it.

In particular, I keep going back to something the Mount Holyoke Student Government VP, Stephanie Roses, said. It’s worth quoting in full:

Questions that have come up: Why does the college feel it needs to explore other options and prove to others that it may remain a women’s institution? Why do single sex institutions need to re-examine their very existence year after year? [Emphasis hers]?

I think it’s an excellent question. Why do we feel the need to stand up and scream every few months: Hey! We’re still relevant!

I’m not going to give you all the stats. You can look those up anywhere. I’m going to give you the responses my friends gave:

-One said she wouldn’t have double majored at a co-ed school.

-Another said she wouldn’t have explored other departments before declaring her major.

-A third friend said she wouldn’t participate in class nearly as often.

-Another said she’s matured far faster from all her friends at home.

At that’s just in informal conversations with friends.

What I’m trying to say is that we do matter and we are relevant.

When I interviewed Jenny Rickard, our Chief Enrollment and Communications Officer, she said, “The work of women’s colleges is not over.” There’s still too few women in Congress, in business, in academia. We have a long way to go and Bryn Mawr is doing a lot of the heavy lifting.

4 thoughts on “On the Women’s College Question

  1. Glad to see you are thinking about it. My experience at Bryn Mawr helped me chose a single sex education for my sons in high school. I do think the older one would have never talked in English class in a co-ed situation.

  2. I went to Bryn Mawr and I’m not sure that I would say that I experienced any of the benefits you described. Perhaps part of it is that the graduate school is coed and I had Haverford guys in my classes both at Bryn Mawr and at Haverford. It wasn’t like we were on a women-only island in the middle of nowhere. I always thought that the biggest difference was that there was a vase in the dorm bathroom that people consistently filled with fresh flowers. I went to BMC because I wanted to be somewhere that people really took study and academia seriously. It definitely lived to expectations.

    The issue of the number of female leaders in government, business and academia is an interesting one. I actually conducted original research on just that question for my senior thesis. There certainly are a lot of women who want to be leaders of the known universe, but most of the ones I interviewed said something to the effect of: “I’m interested in politics (or business or whatever), I’m connected and I’m qualified. But, frankly, I would much rather be at home with my kids than eating a chicken dinner at a fundraiser or sitting at my desk making money.”

    Now, I recognize that I’m oversimplifying the issue, but to a certain extent I think that women are in a better position socially to step out of the rat race — and they do it in disproportionate numbers. Given the sacrifices that are required for being leader of the known universe, I’m not sure I blame them. Of course, there’s always an underlying question of the extent to which choice is subconsciously driven by expectations, and perhaps women’s colleges address that issue. These days, though, women’s college graduates no longer represent a distinct percentage of female leaders.

    I imagine a big part of the issue of constant reevaluation of single sex status has much more to do with money than it does with whether same-sex education is good or bad. I spent one summer working as an administrative assistant in the Admissions office. While the others who worked there were tour guides and spent most of their time in the front of the office, I was in the back and one of the things that the Admissions staff worried over constantly was the application and acceptance rate. At the time I was there the acceptance rate had risen from 15% to 40% over the previous ten years. The reason for this was not because the school became easier, but because the gross number of applicants had dropped. By a lot

    I’m sure you’ve heard that women’s college attendees are a “self-selecting” crowd. That tends to be largely true, and it is how women’s colleges are able to explain away the “high” acceptance rates. The trouble is, the number of self-selectors is dropping. And the self-selectors who attend women’s colleges tend not to be big donators/endowers. I can easily imagine the administration looking around and saying, dang, all these other schools are getting more applicants and more money. Maybe we should just start accepting guys.

    And, in Bryn Mawr’s case, it’s not a difficult leap to make given that, BMC’s most influential leader, M. Carey Thomas, didn’t make or keep Bryn Mawr single sex because she was a proponent of single sex education. It was single sex because, at the time, people were convinced that women needed a special environment to learn in or risk hysteria. And if the school was going to convince parents to send their precious daughters, they had better make sure the parents felt good and safe about paying the tuition.

    These are just my views and I hope you don’t have the perception that I think Bryn Mawr (or Holyoke or any other women’s school) should go coed. I’m actually apathetic about it (senior status stuck I guess). Maybe writing a book on how various women were inspired the way they never would be otherwise is exactly what is needed.

  3. Incidentally, to the extent that you could or would or want to write a book on this issue (and it’s an interesting one!) a thesis is a good place to start. You also don’t want to be in the position of trying to focus on your thesis topic while you’re really thinking about this. I don’t know anything about your background or your program, but, seriously, if it’s possible I would reconsider your senior thesis topic. Maybe I made up all that stuff I said before. Maybe women’s college graduates constitute 15% of worldwide business and governmental leaders. Maybe M. Carey Thomas wrote a monograph on the benefits of single-sex education. You won’t know until you research.

  4. Great article, Elizabeth. I just wanted to provide some context for Melissa’s claim about a change in Bryn Mawr’s acceptance rate. I’m not sure when Melissa went to Bryn Mawr, but I do know that in 1976 the acceptance rate was 60%. In 2011 it was 46% and the entering class size in 2011 is 50% larger than it was in 1976.

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