New Evidence Bolsters Women's Colleges

Graduates of women’s colleges are significantly more likely than women who graduated from other liberal arts colleges or from public flagships to have graduate degrees, according to data released Monday, March 3, 2008.

The data were part of a longitudinal survey of alumnae of women’s colleges, other liberal arts college and of public flagship universities. On a variety of factors, the survey found that the women’s college alumnae rated their institutions more highly than did the women who attended coeducational institutions. Several previous studies have found that women’s college students demonstrate higher levels of engagement than do students on average.

But supporters of women’s colleges see the new data as significant because it provides separate comparisons of women’s colleges to other liberal arts colleges. Because most women’s colleges are liberal arts colleges, some have previously questioned whether the benefits attributed to women’s colleges may in part be a reflection of the more personal attention students receive at liberal arts colleges.

In the data released by the Women’s College Coalition, liberal arts colleges generally fared better than public flagships on many qualities, but in key areas the women’s colleges fared better than the other liberal arts institutions, too. The study was based on a survey of alumnae (women from all kinds of colleges) from 1970 through 1997, with notations where additional polling of more recent alumnae indicated significant differences from the earlier patterns.

On the question of earning a graduate degree, women’s college alumnae were significantly more likely than other to have done so.

GRADUATE EDUCATION BY FEMALE GRADUATES OF DIFFERENT TYPES OF INSTITUTIONS top ^

  WOMEN'S COLLEGES OTHER LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGES PUBLIC FLAGSHIPS
Earned graduate degree 53% 38% 28%
Some graduate education 7% 7% 9%
No graduate education 39% 55% 63%

On a range of other factors, some of which are more subjective than earning a graduate degree, the alumnae from women’s colleges had significantly different responses. This was especially the case in questions related to leadership, where the normal gap between all liberal arts colleges and public flagships was further differentiated.

QUALITIES RECALLED BY ALUMNAE OF VARIOUS KINDS OF COLLEGES top ^

  WOMEN'S COLLEGES OTHER LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGES PUBLIC FLAGSHIPS
College experience frequently included student presentations 55% 43% 40%
Involved in campus publications or student government 43% 31% 13%
Learned to solve problems 54% 38% 27%
Learned to relate to people from different backgrounds 52% 40% 30%
Learned to think analytically 54% 48% 26%
Learned to work as part of a team 47% 36% 28%
Received help to learn to write effectively 59% 44% 29%

Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, chair of the Women’s College Coalition and president of Sweet Briar College, said that she found the results encouraging, and that member institutions would find them useful. Too much information about women’s colleges, she said, “was comparing apples and oranges, or was anecdotal, or was based on the ’70s.”

She also said that this study focused “on outcomes,” demonstrating what actually happened from a student’s perspective, not just which courses were taken. “A piece we had been missing was outcomes — what does it look like, looking back.”

There are obvious short-term uses for the data in promotional materials, Muhlenfeld said. “Our students are always being asked by their friends why in the world they went to a women’s college and it’s very heartening to be able to point to something like this.”

However, Muhlenfeld said that there is a large set of unanswered questions as well about the differing perceptions: Why? She said she hoped that researchers would now take some of these differences and look at why alumnae have such different perceptions and which qualities in undergraduate education mattered. It’s not enough to know that some set of qualities are working, when knowing which qualities they are might help the colleges improve. “Ultimately we hope this could have an impact on how we are teaching,” Muhlenfeld said.

— Scott Jaschik