The Compelling Case for Women's Colleges

By Janet L. Holmgren, President, Mills College, October 11, 2006 from the San Jose Mercury News
In 1990, Mills College came close to walking the same path as these colleges, and reversed the decision to go coed following major protests. Since that time, we have increased enrollment, expanded opportunities for professional graduate education linked to our undergraduate, liberal arts core, broken previous fundraising records, accelerated our academic achievements, and earned national preeminence among higher educational institutions nationwide.

This month, the governing boards of Randolph-Macon Women’s College (Lynchburg, VA) and Regis College (Boston, MA) announced their decisions to become coeducational institutions in 2007.

Randolph-Macon was a single sex undergraduate college for 115 years; Regis was Boston’s only remaining Catholic women’s college, having been a single sex institution for 80 years.

Representatives from both colleges expressed their hope for achieving enrollment increases and financial stability as a result of going coed, while continuing their commitments to the original mission.

In 1990, Mills College came close to walking the same path as these colleges, and reversed the decision to go coed following major protests. Since that time, we have increased enrollment, expanded opportunities for professional graduate education linked to our undergraduate, liberal arts core, broken previous fundraising records, accelerated our academic achievements, and earned national preeminence among higher educational institutions nationwide.

This extraordinary momentum is integral to our unwavering dedication to women’s education and advancement within a diverse, rigorous, academic environment. And yes, we are fiscally strong with a significant endowment of over $200 million.

In light of the Randolph-Macon and Regis decisions, and the decreasing number of women’s colleges nationwide—from approximately 300 in the 1960s to approximately 60 today—it is vital to understand the compelling case for women’s colleges and why Mills continues to thrive as a women’s liberal arts college and a women-centered graduate and professional higher education institution.

Women’s colleges excel at preparing women for lifelong achievement by offering advanced curricula and pedagogy, an inclusive environment, accessible female role models and mentors, and plentiful leadership opportunities.

This is why so many congresswomen and other female leaders are women’s college graduates. Nancy Pelosi (Trinity), Hillary Clinton (Wellesley), and Barbara Lee (Mills) are just a few of the 20 percent of women in Congress who are graduates of women's colleges.

According to the Women’s College Coalition, 33 percent of the women on Fortune 1000 boards and 36 percent of the highest paid women officers of those companies were graduates of women’s colleges.

Although significant progress has been made in advancing women’s opportunities, equal access to positions of leadership is just one area where much work remains. Consider these facts:

  • In the history of the United States, 30 women have held cabinet or cabinet-level positions.
  • Women hold only 15.1% of the 535 seats in the 109th U.S. Congress and 14% of the 100 seats in the Senate.
  • Women hold 25.1% of statewide elective executive offices in the U.S.; 6.3% of them are women of color.
  • At the current rate, it could take 40 years for women to equal men in corporate officer positions.

The imperative for women’s colleges was underscored by a recent survey completed by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research (National Survey of Student Engagement, July 11, 2006). It confirmed that first-year students and seniors at women’s colleges perceive greater support for success than their peers at coed institutions and gain more from their college experience compared with women at coed institutions.

The survey also revealed that women’s colleges foster an environment “that fuels women’s understanding of self and others, a willingness to work with others, and the development of skills associated with career success and leadership.”

Women’s colleges also encourage participation in male-dominated fields such as math, sciences, and engineering, have a higher rate of completion of bachelor's degrees, lead to higher percentages of Ph.D. attainment, and have proportionately more women graduates working in Fortune 500 executive positions.

As more women seek higher education and the benefits it bestows, women's colleges must take the lead as national models for the effective education of girls and women.

Our contemporary, global curriculum, thoughtful mentoring, and plentiful opportunities for leadership, research, and social activism are unparalleled. Mills begins its 155th year fiercely dedicated to preparing women to achieve their maximum potential and contribute to societal advancement. While the percentage of women’s colleges may be small in the total higher educational landscape, Mills and other women’s colleges will continue to make a powerful impact as the preeminent experts in educating women who will lead and transform society.