Ladies First at U.S. Women’s Colleges
Can women's only colleges in the United States allay fears among foreign students about security and inclusiveness in America?
Last year, when Delhi resident Shambhavi Chaddha expressed her desire to enroll at a university in America, her family was both surprised and apprehensive. After all, she would be the first from the family to go to study in the United States, particularly at a time when issues of racism, ethnicity and security in the country weigh heavily on immigrant minds. What reassured her family, however, according to Shambhavi, was the fact that she chose an all-women’s college. Shambhavi who is studying liberal arts at Barnard College in New York City, says: “My family was apprehensive, but when they heard that the college I am considering is an all women’s institute, it somewhat assured them. It felt safer and they were more encouraging.”
Amy E. Markham, associate dean of admissions at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., says: “Every year we get a batch full of students from across the world. Women today are very well aware of the education system and (they know) opportunities here in U.S. is no less for them.”
There are only 32 exclusively women’s colleges among the nearly 4,500 institutions of higher education in the United States, according to the College Board. By contrast, there are just three all-male traditional colleges, although there are another 50 Christian and Jewish seminaries in the country.
While women’s only colleges may be fading across America, in the current political climate, for many immigrant students from traditional societies, the idea of enrolling in a same-sex institute holds attraction. This is especially true in India, which holds the distinction of sending the second largest number of students to America, after China, as often their high school experience is in a same sex school.
Many of these women’s colleges are highly reputed. According to the Women’s College Coalition, although women’s college alumni represent only 2 percent of graduates, nearly, 30% of women featured in BusinessWeek’s 2015 list of “Rising Stars in Corporate America” graduated from women’s institutions. An estimated one-third of female board members of Fortune 1,000 companies studied at all-women’s colleges.
Many prominent U.S. personalities are women’s college graduates. Hillary Clinton attended Wellesley College; Nancy Pelosi, the first woman speaker of the House of Representatives, and Madeleine Albright, the first woman secretary of state, are all graduates of women’s colleges, as are feminist icons, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan; author Pear S Buck and Alice Walker, as well as TV personalities Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters.
Adarsh Khandelwal, of Collegify, an India based mentoring service that helps students choose colleges abroad, says: “Cities like Kolkata and Mumbai have a long track record of sending students to women’s colleges, so students in those cities are more aware than in Delhi. The erstwhile women’s Ivies — Barnard, Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr and Mount Holyoke — remain the top choices. The awareness is spreading in other cities as these colleges are also now touring schools and counselor officers are meeting students much more than before.”
U.S. women’s college emerged largely in the mid to late 19th century, when most educational institutions did not admit women. In 2015, however, women vastly outnumber men in the college student population. According to National Center for Education Statistics data, 53 percent of the students aged 18 to 24 in two- and four-year colleges in 2015 were female. The female population on college campuses has consistently outstripped males since 1992. Also, according to data from the Council of Graduate Schools, females outnumber men in graduate schools by 135 to 100. In 2015, they received a majority of doctoral degrees for seven years in a row and 58 percent of master’s degrees.
Now that women have stolen a march over men in college education, is there still a place for women’s only colleges? Markham says, “I do believe that women’s college foster leadership skills for young women that are often missing in co-educational institutions.”
Overseas, however, few college aspirants are familiar with these women’s colleges. Chaddha recalls: “I knew about the existence of women’s colleges in the U.S. However only after significant research did I get to know more about them and what they are like. I chose Barnard because I heard about it from a family friend’s daughter who was also a student there. I began to warm to the idea of being in a supportive and encouraging female environment.”
Another Indian student who began her college year in the United States this fall, Stuti Goyal from Delhi, who enrolled at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., says: “My family was actually very happy to learn that I would be studying at a women’s college. I believe they had concerns about sending their daughter all alone to a distant foreign country but felt much more relaxed once they knew that I would be at a women’s college, where safety is perhaps more assured.”
Goyal too was unfamiliar with women’s colleges before she embarked on her college search: “I had heard about women’s colleges, but didn’t know much about it. My placement mentors in India helped me identify Smith as a great option for the subjects that I wished to study.”
Mount Holyoke’s Markham says, “While China leads the list, there are many students from Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, Korea and Mexico studying in all-girls colleges.”
With the recent spate of hate crime incidents in America and tightening of rules on H1B visas, the reports of apprehensions among students have been in circulation for a while now. Khandelwal says: “U.S. and UK have traditionally remained top choices for Indian students, but it’s true that now Canada, Singapore and Hong Kong are the other most preferred countries. The quality of education in Canada is on par with that in the U.S. Singapore is a cosmopolitan country with wonderful exposure and education. Hong Kong has emerged as a top study destination in Asia owing to its specialized courses and economic prosperity.”
Even so, the United States remains a major draw. For many female students, one appeal of women’s only colleges is that they can avoid stereotypical assumptions about studying STEM or other male dominated subjects. Counselors claim that a women’s college creates a highly validating environment without being distracted by gender-related expectations. Studies have also shown that women college graduates entering the co-ed workplace are better prepared to navigate gender biases.
Markham says, “Women’s colleges in the US are exciting, nurturing spaces that engage women from around the world academically while also bolstering their leadership skills. Many women’s colleges (Barnard, Wellesley, Smith, etc.) are in a partnership with other colleges, often large research institutions such as Columbia and MIT that offer a plethora of academic resources, clubs and sporting teams and libraries. One enjoys the comfort and unparalleled attention of a small liberal arts college while having access to cutting edge research institutions.”
Stuti Goyal concurs: “I have spoken to several alumnae from my college and all reiterated the same thing — at Smith, all leaders are women. Representation is essential. Once you see a woman in every position of power, you are far more likely to become a leader yourself.”
What about the safety concerns that weighed on parents of the Indian women who opted for women’s colleges.
Markhan says, “Although I don’t have any statistics to share about gun violence on women’s college campuses, I know of no such incidents at any time in the history of women’s colleges in the United States. In fact, though gun violence events are major news stories, the reality is that there are a very small number of such incidents each year, affecting 0-5 of the 4,500 colleges and universities in the United States. Women’s colleges are extremely welcoming and inclusive to both domestic and international students.”