Women’s Colleges Ahead in Educating First Gen, Lower Income Students

Posted By Marilyn Hammond - 01/29/2014

Today’s White House higher education summit will focus, in part, on improving access to higher education for lower-income and first-generation students, and it’s no surprise that five women’s college presidents will be on hand to lend their support. 

Women’s colleges have educated a higher percentage of low-income, racially diverse and first-generation students than traditional co-ed colleges and universities, public or private, for more than a decade. The presidents of Smith, Mount Holyoke, Barnard, Spelman and Scripps Colleges— all members of the Women’s College Coalition— will attend today’s White House Summit in support of President Obama’s goal to improve college access and success for lower-income and first generation students.

“The nearly fifty U.S. women’s colleges across the country are proud to be leaders in the effort to help more Americans get to and through college,” said Elizabeth Kiss, chair of the Women’s College Coalition board and president of Agnes Scott College.  “As a sector, we enroll a higher percentage of low-income students and first-generation students – and our member institutions do a superb job of helping these students aim high and succeed.  We are eager to join forces with the President, policy-makers of both parties and the higher education community in shaping this vitally important national conversation about our future.” 

Women’s colleges are more likely to enroll students who identify as African American (26.9 percent), American Indian (3.3 percent), and “other” race/ethnicity (4.6 percent), and are second only to public universities in the proportion of Chicano/Latino students enrolled (14.2 percent), according to a 2012 study from the Women’s College Coalition (WCC).

Compared to women at other institutions, women’s college attendees are more likely than women at co-ed colleges and universities to report that their mothers and fathers did not attend college, according to the WCC study. They also have, on average, lower family incomes, with the median family income for women’s college students being approximately $84,000, compared to $126,000 for women attending coeducational private universities. 

Not only do women’s colleges enroll a higher percentage of lower income and first-generation students, they also do an excellent job of helping these students succeed. Women’s college alumnae are more likely to earn a graduate degree (51 percent) than women from co-ed liberal arts colleges (33 percent) or flagship public universities (27 percent).  

More than one in three (37.2 percent) women’s college students surveyed plan to earn a master’s degree as their highest degree, and more than one in four (27.3 percent) plan to earn a Ph.D. or Ed.D., a figure higher than for students at co-ed colleges and universities. Related to this, women’s college attendees are the most likely to report that preparing for graduate or professional school was a very important reason for going to college (72.5 percent).