In an Unequal World, Women’s Liberal Arts Colleges Remain Relevant

There are currently fewer than 50 women’s-only colleges in the U.S., and graduates of these liberal arts institutions make up less than 2 percent of all college graduates nationwide. Even so, more than 20 percent of the women in Congress are alumnae of women’s colleges, and nearly one-third of the women named “rising stars” in the corporate sector by Businessweek are graduates of these schools.

A 2012 comparative study of alumnae of women’s colleges and public universities — published by the Women’s College Coalition — found that 81 percent of women’s college alumnae reported that their education was extremely or very effective in preparing them for a career, compared with only 65 percent of graduates of public universities. Alumnae of women’s colleges are also nearly twice as likely as their public university peers to pursue graduate education and can earn an average of $8,000 more per year.

Perhaps surprisingly, women’s colleges also tend to be more diverse in terms of race, socioeconomic status, and gender identity than public co-ed institutions. On Forbes’ list of the 300 Best Value Colleges, five out of the 14 most diverse liberal arts colleges listed are women’s-only.

“I don’t think it’s an accident that Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton graduated from a women’s college,” says Kijua Sanders-McMurtry, PhD, interim vice president for student life and dean of students at Agnes Scott College. “And I don’t think there would be a serious female contender for a presidential candidate if not for women’s colleges.”

Buttrick Hall on Agnes Scott College’s Decatur, Ga., campus
Buttrick Hall on Agnes Scott College’s Decatur, Ga., campus

Agnes Scott College, in Decatur, Ga., is more than 50 percent students of color. And while Sanders-McMurtry admits that inclusive excellence is more about affirming and recognizing all identities than about having them represented statistically, she says the college has been intentional about developing inclusive policies and programs and thinks having a diverse student body appeals to many students.

[Above: Representatives of various student organizations at Agnes Scott College’s May 10, 2014, commencement ceremony (photo by Agnes Scott College, via Flickr)]

Agnes Scott’s signature diversity programs focus primarily on examining the intersections of identity and social justice. Its Think, Live, Engage dialogue series is a four- to six-week program sponsored by the President’s Committee for Community Diversity. Students, faculty, and staff meet over lunch to discuss topics related to social identities like gender, class, politics, and faith. Sanders-McMurtry says a recent discussion called “Make America Great Again” looked at how the term “great” can be polarizing for groups that have historically been marginalized.

The Gay Johnson McDougall Symposium on Race, Justice, and Reconciliation is another opportunity for the Agnes Scott community to explore its history and look to its future. McDougall was the first African American student to integrate Agnes Scott in 1965, and her experience was fraught with tension. The three-day symposium — and the Center for Global Diversity and Inclusion at the college — named for her featured programming addressing global racial oppression and opportunities to make amends.

Additionally, Sanders-McMurtry says Agnes Scott has worked proactively to address issues of gender diversity; the college began admitting transgender students four years ago, and residential advisers are required to complete Trans 101 and Safe Zone training.

She thinks the fact that women’s colleges were traditionally established as an alternative to institutions that would not accept them signals to women of all backgrounds that there will be greater opportunities for them to thrive. Further, liberal arts colleges’ “small-by-design” nature requires schools like Agnes Scott to be innovative and think strategically in order to stay competitive, which means they are often more progressive — a quality that is attractive to many women and underrepresented minorities.

“There’s a natural affinity for women to be attracted to the core values of women’s colleges, which have historically been places for the empowerment of women,” Sanders-McMurtry says. “For a lot of Muslim students as well, a women’s college may be more attractive.”

The difference for her in coming to a women’s college from a co-educational institution was that no one second-guessed her ability to lead.

Agnes Scott graduates at the college’s 2014 commencement ceremony (photo by Agnes Scott College, via Flickr)

“When I came for my interview, there was never a question of whether or not I was intelligent enough [to do the job], and that was very empowering,” she says. “Coming to a women’s college was the first time I’ve seen women in leadership roles in everything … and at the forefront of every policy decision. That’s very attractive to young women.”

Eva Newbold, an Agnes Scott senior double majoring in women’s studies and English literature, says she chose a women’s-only education because she wanted to be in a supportive and challenging environment with a strong, progressive community. She agrees with Sanders-McMurtry that the history of women’s colleges ensures their future as leading educators of women.

“The women’s colleges of today have the ability to be places that foster the growth of women and other marginalized people,” Newbold says. “They can be places that celebrate diversity and show what can be achieved when they teach open-mindedness and acceptance.”

Agnes Scott student Pippa Marple, a first-year art history and French major, is the daughter of a women’s college alumna; she says she chose a women’s-only education for the opportunities it affords her.

“I feel comfortable truly being myself and sharing my opinions, and I notice this is the same with my peers,” says Marple. “I think having a women’s-only education (especially at such a diverse school) is preparing me to face any type of situation post college. Our education is tailored to empower us as women and educate us about situations that we may encounter later in life.”

While some may question the relevance of a liberal arts, single-sex education in today’s social, economic, and political landscape, Sanders-McMurtry believes in the value of a women’s-only education.

“As long as we live in a [time when] women around the world are still paid less than men and are castigated for being women, where a woman’s respectability is connected to her husband, and where there is sexism, we need women’s colleges,” she says. “A women’s education is about enhancing their ability to lead. Women’s colleges are still very relevant and are doing work that is changing the world.”●

Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.