ROANOKE, VA. — Single-gender education, not so long ago thought to be passé, is gaining currency as a "new" option for reforming severely challenged public schools.
One bold experiment - The Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem - has converted many critics. And the concept of single-gender public schools is poised to get a big push from legislation backed by the unlikely political pairing of Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York.
Yet women's colleges are on higher education's endangered-species list. From a high of 298 women's colleges in 1960 to just 68 today, the US is losing institutions that have proven extremely effective at maximizing the intellectual capital and leadership capabilities of the half of our population not always well served by coeducational learning.
Single-gender college education is losing ground in spite of its track record, not because of it. Studies repeatedly have shown that the single-gender environment in higher education allows women to participate more fully in and out of class. It sends them into the world better able to compete and with more self- confidence and a greater sense of purpose than their coed counterparts, and often provides them with a broader array of women role models.
Then why do women's colleges struggle for recognition and even survival? Unfortunately, most young women choosing a college don't initially consider women's colleges, because too few understand what they offer. The stereotypical images evoked over the years have been of lily-white rich girls' finishing schools or havens for man-hating, bra-burning feminists.
Research suggests only 3 percent of high school girls have a serious interest in attending an all women's college. I suspect that this is not so much evidence of an informed rejection of women's colleges as it is proof of the woefully inadequate job advocates of single-gender higher education have done in communicating the special advantages of attending a women's college.
A more telling number is the majority of women's college graduates - more than 90 percent at Hollins University, for example - who say they would make the same choice again.
Critics attempt to refute the advantages of single-gender higher education - arguing, for instance, that young women who already are highly motivated and success-oriented select women's colleges. But for women following graduation, the benefits of attending a women's college are undeniable: They tend to be more successful in their careers, are happier in their jobs, and make more money. Women's-college graduates constitute more than 20 percent of women in Congress, and 30 percent of a Business Week list of rising women in business, yet represent only 2 percent of all female college graduates.
On the other side of the equation, there is ample evidence to buttress the argument that coeducational classrooms can, indeed, have a chilling effect on young women. Studies show that even the brightest women students are talked over in the classroom by their male counterparts. Their ideas and contributions are often ignored, and the deleterious effects on self-esteem and untapped leadership potential are long-lasting.
This environment militates against a young woman leaving college brimming with self-confidence and armed with the tools she will need to maximize her potential.
During two decades in large coed settings at major research universities, I taught pre-med students - some of the best and the brightest. I saw young women come into class smart, ready, and eager to go - and over time I watched as they gradually deflated, shut down, turned off.
Watching this pattern year after year - and seeing the growing body of research that confirmed my observations - it becomes obvious to me that these women were being handicapped by the coed environment. My intuitions were, in large part, shaped by recollections of my own positive experiences as an undergraduate at a women's college.
We don't need more research to tell us about the value of single-gender education.
While equal access has become proxy for equality, we must understand the societal cost of dismissing single-gender education as unnecessary and anachronistic. And we need more champions for all educational alternatives that produce young people better prepared to lead successful, fulfilled lives.
Is there truly an expanded role for women's colleges in a society where "The Bachelor" reaps No. 1 ratings among college-age women? Now more than ever, young women college graduates need the tools women's colleges provide in order to thrive in a changing, demanding world.
And the world, more than ever, will need those women.
• Nora Kizer Bell is the president of Hollins University in Roanoke, Va., a 160-year-oldwomen's college.