Women's colleges, once a second choice, jump in popularity

Women's colleges, often shunned in favor of coeducational institutions during the height of the feminist movement of the 1970s, are once again growing in popularity.

The new enthusiasm is often a result of women still finding themselves encouraged to follow traditional educational paths. They are advised to take liberal arts training rather than math and science, score lower collectively in math and science than male student counterparts, and find few of their ranks rising higher than middle-management positions in the corporate world.

Many young women, therefore, are looking to women's colleges to provide a supportive atmosphere that will boost them above the inequities that still exist , women's college administrators say.

At last week's conference of the Association of American Colleges here, the Women's College Coalition brought together a panel of presidents from Wellesley, Mills, Scripps, Mount St. Mary's, and Stephens Colleges to discuss the state of their institutions.

''We want to dispel the myth that we somehow are in an age of equality and that women's colleges are an anachronism,'' declared Mary Metz, president of Mills College.

A woman who is educated at a woman's college is ''aware of what can be and what should be (for women). So, far from sheltering, we're preparing them,'' she says.

The three private California colleges - Scripps, Mount St. Mary's, and Mills - are all experiencing an increase in students while enrollments are typically declining at their coeducational and public counterparts.

John Chandler, president of Scripps, says that women seem to be ''coming here because we are a women's college, not despite the fact that we are.''

Nan Keohane, president of Wellesley, notes that her students who have spent time at other colleges are very aware of the differences. She says they feel the Wellesley atmosphere is more supportive, and that with an administration that is 50 percent female, there is an awareness of how much women can accomplish.

Besides providing simply an atmosphere where a woman can develop self-confidence and leadership abilities, the women's colleges have been focusing on how to overcome educational stereotypes for women.

The presidents offered some examples:

* At Mills College, it was found that remedial math courses designed to bring women up to college-level math actually increased anxiety as students wondered if they really weren't good at math, Ms. Metz says. By starting an innovative one-semester precalculus class, the college has doubled elective math enrollment - with nearly 80 percent of students taking math and science courses.

* The emphasis is on humanities at Scripps, John Chandler says, but administrators there wanted to link humanities with science and math to catch the interest of students who thought they weren't technically inclined. Science enrollment has doubled, he says, with courses like a biological science class that includes ethical issues.

* At Wellesley, Nan Keohane says, ''we make a specific attempt to make our young women have a clear-cut opportunity to sort out career concerns rather than just having it happen by accident. We try to hone their self-confidence and their ambition.''

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