Women Students at Coeducational and Women’s Colleges:

How Do Their Experiences Compare?

- The following is excerpted from the National Survey of Student Engagement 2004 study on comparing the experiences of women attending women’s colleges with those of women attending coeducational institutions.

In general, women at single-sex colleges are more engaged than women at coeducational institutions. After controlling for both individual and institutional characteristics, both first-year and senior women attending women’s colleges reported higher levels of academic challenge.

Especially noteworthy is that seniors at women’s colleges were more likely to engage in higher order thinking activities than seniors at coeducational institutions.

Similarly, both seniors and first-year students at women’s colleges scored higher on active and collaborative learning and student-faculty interaction than their counterparts at coeducational institutions.

Additionally, both first-year students and seniors at women’s colleges were more likely to engage in integrative activities that lead to deep learning.

The largest observed difference was related to experiences with diversity. Both first-year and seniors at women’s colleges reported that their campus environment encouraged and supported diverse interactions and an understanding of diversity to a greater degree than women at coeducational schools.

Nevertheless, students’ perceptions of other aspects of the campus environment are somewhat mixed. For example, women attending the two categories of institutions did not differ in terms of their perceptions of the overall campus environment.

However, seniors at women’s colleges perceived a lower level of interpersonal support compared with their counterparts at coeducational schools, while first-year students at women’s colleges perceived greater support for success. No differences were found in terms of student satisfaction.

In terms of gains, women’s college respondents reported making more progress in every measure tested.

Specifically, women’s college students indicated greater gains in understanding themselves and others, general education, ability to analyze quantitative problems, and desire to contribute to the welfare of their community.

Contrary to national findings that show transfer students are generally less engaged overall, transfer students at women’s colleges were as engaged as those who started at and were about to graduate from the same women’s college. In some instances they were more engaged.

For example, senior transfer students reported higher levels of academic challenge and first-year transfer students reported more integrative experiences. Although some first-year students may have only spent a short time at another institution prior to transferring, these findings are noteworthy.

Perhaps the women who choose women’s colleges are more predisposed than women who matriculate to other types of institutions to interacting with faculty members and engaging in collaborative learning. That is, women at women’s colleges select women’s colleges because they believe single-sex institutions provide an environment that offers more such opportunities. This possible self-selection may influence the relationship between women’s colleges and the dependent measures of this study.

The results from this study are consistent with other research studies, which show that women who attend a women’s college are significantly advantaged in terms of the nature and frequency with which they engage in educationally purposeful activities and in the progress they make in a variety of desirable outcomes of college.

These advantages exist independent of institutional selectivity.

More specifically, women at women’s colleges engage more frequently in effective educational practices at levels that exceed those of their counterparts at coeducational institutions. Indeed, on almost every engagement measure, women at single-sex colleges scored higher. They also reported making more progress toward a variety of desirable outcomes of college.

Women’s colleges also appear to be transfer-friendly, in that the pattern of advantages also held for this group of students who are typically less engaged at other types of institutions.

True to their word, these colleges appear to have created a climate where women are encouraged to realize their potential and become involved in various facets of campus life, inside and outside the classroom.

The high levels of academic challenge found at women’s colleges appears to be a reflection of “taking women seriously.” Both first-year students and seniors at women’s colleges report significantly higher levels of academic challenge than women at coeducational institutions.

This suggests that women’s colleges may create climates in which students are encouraged to spend significant amounts of time studying and working hard to meet the expectations of instructors. Consonant with the work of Smith, Wolf and Morrison (1995), women at women’s college perceive the environment to require a high level of academic involvement. As a result, they expect to work hard to meet these high expectations.

Seniors appear to benefit the most from the emphasis women’s colleges place on higher order cognitive activities in coursework. Although the level of academic work expected of students who attend the most selective women’s colleges has long been touted as a defining characteristic, this study suggests that many women’s colleges are indeed providing women a challenging academic experience.

The advantages of women’s colleges are said to be due in part to:

  • The availability of more female mentors and role models among the faculty and top administrators;
  • Greater opportunities for and participation in student leadership roles; and
  • Higher percentages of students enrolled in the traditionally-male disciplines of math, science, and engineering
    (http://www.womenscolleges.org; Langdon, 2001; Tidball et al., 1999).

Our findings showing that students at women’s colleges interact more frequently with faculty suggest that faculty members at women’s colleges may be more accessible and students have more opportunities to talk with faculty members outside of class than women at coeducational institutions.

This finding lends further insight into the discussions raised by Tidball (1973, 1980) and Kim and Alvarez (1995), regarding the advantages of the number of female faculty at women’s colleges, by suggesting that it is the frequency of interactions among students and faculty members at women’s colleges that makes a positive educational difference for women.

Indeed, it is reasonable to assume that high levels of student-faculty interaction create opportunities for mentorship, such as providing advice and encouragement, recommendations for awards, internships or jobs, and involving students in research.

These practices have been shown to have a positive influence on all students, and especially for women in science (Astin & Sax, 1996). Women in science, mathematics, and engineering at coeducational institutions are often discouraged from pursuing science as a career because they have few interactions with role models that could support such a choice and further they perceive that science professors fail to take them seriously (Davis et al., 1996; Nelson & Rogers, 2004; Seymour & Hewitt, 1997).

By establishing conditions that foster student faculty interactions, women’s colleges appear to have provided important supports for women in fields where they are underrepresented. This is true, for example, at Sweet Briar College where 60% of its graduates obtain advanced degrees, many of them in the sciences.

Results from this study also confirm that first-year students and seniors at women’s colleges participate more actively in class, collaborate more frequently with their classmates in and outside of class, and tutor other students more than women at coeducational institutions.

Many have argued that because men are absent at women’s colleges, women students at singlesex institutions have unique opportunities to engage in the education process (Conway, 1985; Langdon, 2001; Neff & Harwood, 1991, Sharp, 1991; Women’s College Coalition, 1981).

Unlike women at coeducational institutions, women at single-sex colleges assume all the leadership roles on campus, form study groups composed only of women, and take charge in laboratory exercises and classroom discussion.

Our findings lend further support to Fassinger’s (1995) conclusion that classroom conditions at coeducational institutions reduce women’s level of participation, whereas women’s colleges seem to create classroom conditions in which women students are more likely to be actively engaged.

The results of this study also show that women’s colleges seem to foster an environment that fuels women’s understanding of self and others. That is, students at women’s colleges report greater gains in self-understanding, including learning effectively on one’s own and working effectively with others, than women at coeducational institutions.

These skills, which are typically associated with career success and leadership, reveal some of conditions that contribute to the high production of leaders from women’s colleges (e.g., graduates of women’s colleges constitute more than 20% of women in Congress and are 30% of a Business Week list of rising women stars in corporate America).

Women’s colleges also appear to create conditions that support women’s development of quantitative skills, and these gains are particularly significant for science and math majors. This is contrasted with studies that show that women generally report relatively low gains in quantitative skills in college (see Davis et al., 1996).

Although it is not surprising that women’s colleges would be more sensitive to issues of gender and sexism, this study also shows that both first-year students and seniors at women’s colleges report significantly more experiences with diversity than women at coeducational institutions.

This finding reinforces Smith, Wolf and Morrison’s (1995) conclusion that women at women’s colleges perceived that their institutions cared about multiculturalism, and bolsters the importance of creating conditions that facilitate experience with diversity.

This is one of the more important findings from this study, inasmuch as the topic of diversity has not been widely examined at women’s colleges previously. Our findings indicate that women’s colleges both encourage and provide more opportunities for students to interact with people of different economic, racial, and social backgrounds.

Given the advantages that women’s colleges create for their students’ learning and personal development, it would seem that coeducational institutions have something to learn.

For example, coeducational institutions can invest more institutional attention to incorporating gender-inclusive pedagogies in all courses, but particularly courses where women are underrepresented, and in creating conditions and programs that help women students develop greater self-understanding.

In an effort to understand under what circumstances students at women’s colleges are enjoying such high levels of interaction with their faculty, the quality and frequency of student-faculty interaction at women’s colleges might also be further examined.

In addition, it would be instructive to document the initiatives that support such high levels of diversity experiences and discover the policies and practices women’s colleges enact to welcome and support transfer students and enable them to thrive socially and academically at levels comparable to students who begin college at the same school.

Clearly, women are the center of attention at women’s colleges. Moreover, women’s colleges typically provide programs, policies, and practices that, on average, engage their students at high levels in educationally purposeful activities.

This strongly suggests that more women should give further consideration to attending such a college, especially since the advantages of a women’s college education are not limited to only a small set of highly selective institutions, such as the Seven Sisters colleges.

In one sense the exclusion of the Seven Sisters may make our findings even more noteworthy because other women’s colleges generally are more accessible to and educate a larger proportion of women undergraduates.

In order to discover what it is that women’s colleges do that seems to work so well, the programs, policies, and practices that effectively engage women at women’s colleges warrant further examination.

One key issue is to capture and describe in a fulsome way the curricular and out-of-class factors that seem to contribute to women developing skills in analyzing quantitative problems and self-understanding and to distill principles for designing experiences that can encourage more women in coeducational environments to acquire these competencies at higher levels.

For example, Alverno College’s “ability-based” curriculum explicitly identifies eight abilities including skills in analysis, social interaction, and effective citizenship that graduates must possess to be successful professionals in their chosen field. Alverno uses these abilities to educate students and to promote individual responsibility for learning during college and throughout life. Faculty members, through the liberal arts core courses and professional
specializations, teach to these abilities.

Alverno also has cultivated a culture of collaboration, linking active and cooperative learning activities to its abilities-based curriculum. Further, classrooms are usually arranged in “pods” (small groups of desks or tables) to facilitate small group discussion. Research studies using a qualitative approach including Manning (2000), Miller-Bernal (2000) and Whitt (1994), have demonstrated other salient cultural elements, and features of women’s colleges.

However, additional studies that document and discern pedagogical practices, educational policies and programs that uniquely contribute to women’s education at single sex colleges should be explored. A cultural audit might discover aspects of the cultures of women’s colleges that may inadvertently be contributing to the qualitatively different experiences of women on the same campus (Kuh, Schuh, Whitt & Associates, 1991).

As Geraldine Clifford (1993, p. 142) observed, “gender . . . is one of the most potent forces in shaping human institutions, including education.” For more than two decades, proponents of women’s colleges have asserted that such institutions offer female students a challenging, supportive, and developmentally powerful learning environment (Conway, 1985; Langdon, 2001; Neff & Harwood, 1991, Sharp, 1991; Women’s College Coalition, 1981).

Our findings support this claim and plainly indicate that single-sex colleges are a vital postsecondary option for women. In many respects they are models of effective educational practice, institutions that have much to teach other types of colleges and universities that aspire to providing a challenging yet supportive educational environment for all their students.