Women’s colleges can be supportive, empowering environments that allow female students to access opportunities and fulfil their potential, unhindered by discrimination.
Women's colleges were founded to provide women with access to higher education. Many were started as seminaries, institutions devoted to educating students in theology, until 1837, when institutions started to admit female students as well as male, Oberlin College being the first one. A group of colleges called the Seven Sisters colleges - located in the northeast of the US - were founded in the nineteenth century with a mission to provide women with an education of the same calibre as male counterparts such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale. By the 1960s there were 281 women's colleges around the country, but as more institutions became coeducational, this number has dropped to 33 non-coeducational women's colleges today.
Who can attend?
Women's colleges are usually liberal arts colleges which aim to support the education, growth and development of female-identifying students. Some women's colleges have recently revised their admissions policies to admit transgender women as well as non-binary students. Most also have a diverse student body, accepting a high number of international students as well as students from minority backgrounds.
Benefits of attending a women's college
As with liberal arts colleges, the benefits of attending women's colleges include smaller class sizes, dedicated staff, and the liberal arts philosophy of educating well-rounded students who can engage with the world in an interdisciplinary manner. Women's colleges tend to have a strong sense of tradition and tight-knit communities. Other benefits include:
Leadership and empowerment
On the campus of a women's college, students have the opportunity to develop skills to influence, inspire and empower others, building collaborative networks and taking on a wide range of leadership positions.
A rigorous and engaging academic experience
Many women's colleges boast faculty who are highly established in their fields, and how are passionate about empowering women to pursue their passion and achieve their potential in their educational field. About 35% of students at Mount Holyoke major in STEM - a much higher proportion than at most co-ed institutions.
Women and Gender Studies
These fields are highly valued at women's colleges, and classes are taught by renowned women's studies scholars. Some colleges incorporate this as part of graduation requirements.
A lot of women's colleges are also located near larger universities, or are part of consortiums, which gives students the ability to cross-register and take classes at those schools. This is valuable as it allows students the best of both worlds -attend an elite women's college with all its benefits, and at the same time, take advantage of what's on offer at a neighbouring university.
Many top companies recruit from women's colleges, drawn by the high-calibre of candidates there. And although women's college graduates make up 2 percent of the college graduate population, they are more than twice as likely as graduates of coeducational colleges to receive doctoral degrees. More than 20 percent of women in Congress and 33 percent of women on Fortune 1000 boards graduated from a women's college.*
*Data from "Why a Women's College," a 2014 study by Collegewise Counselors.
Alumnae of women's colleges arguably constitute the most powerful professional women's networks on the globe. They are leaders in the fields of politics, sciences and the arts and include:
- Helen Meyer - College of St. Benedict
- Julia Child - Smith College
- Nancy Pelosi - Trinity Washington University
- Katherine Hepburn - Bryn Mawr College
- Martha Steward - Barnard College
- Hillary Clinton - Wellesley College
Find out more
Interested in finding out more about these colleges? Check out the women's colleges that came to College Day 2019.
With thanks to Mount Holyoke, whose pamphlet, "Why Mount Holyoke: The Women's College Edition" served as inspiration for this page.