The Fight to Preserve Women's Colleges

LAST week, amidst celebration by faculty, alumnae, and students, the board of trustees of Mills College reversed an earlier decision to admit men to this 138-year-old women's college. We at women's colleges are inspired, and at the same time challenged, by the board's realization that Mills should remain a college for women. The events at Mills have focused public attention on women's colleges nationwide, raising questions about their survival in times of increased competition for students. In thinking about what happened at Mills, a few points need to be made about where women's colleges fit into the future of higher education.

Women's colleges are a unique source of educational excellence in America.

Today - when the cry is that we need more people trained in math and science - women's colleges graduate nearly twice the percentage of majors in math and science as other colleges. They contribute disproportionately to the pool of women in Congress and in corporate board rooms. And they engage their students in the process of learning - through outside-the-classroom opportunities for involvement and leadership and through classroom teaching - more than is true for most of higher education.

Women's colleges improve education and expand opportunities for women throughout higher education.

Women's colleges have been either the alma mater or the later training ground for a great many of the women who provide leadership in coeducational higher education - from University of Wisconsin President Donna Shalala to Cal State/Fullerton President Jewell Cobb. Women's colleges have pioneered the weekend college and other flexible scheduling options that - now common in colleges across the country - have opened up higher education to millions of part-time and working students. And it is their classrooms and campuses that provide the model, to all of higher education, for how the learning process in college can best work for women.

Preserving women's colleges preserves choice in American higher education.

Some women do not want to attend an all-women college. But a great number do, and that option should not be foreclosed. One strength of our higher educational system is its diversity. If we end that diversity, the entire system is diminished. And so are women's options.

Additionally, women's colleges are predominantly small colleges, focused on the quality of teaching and learning rather than research. In the effort to maintain options in higher education - whether related to size, quality, focus on students, or focus on women's education - a significant part of the solution lies with these institutions.

Why, then, are women's colleges at risk? There are two reasons. One is the obverse of the strength just cited: women's colleges are small and predominantly private. They are - along with their coeducational peer institutions - tuition-dependent, operating with very little margin to absorb enrollment dips.

The second cause of risk is that the merits of women's colleges are not easily understood by the teenage girls who constitute the primary market. Once the students enroll in women's colleges, they become - as the Mills students have so persuasively shown the nation - extraordinarily dedicated to what is special about the women's college environment. But the challenge of building enrollment puts the women's colleges under significant pressure and expense.

That the women's colleges should be preserved, to thrive and to serve, is clear. Ensuring that preservation will take a renewed commitment, in this country's higher education policy, to fight those forces that steer us away from the small and the distinctive, and toward the big and the same.

Ensuring the preservation of women's colleges will also require a clearer, more penetrating analysis of the benefits and results of these institutions than we have seen before, so that we engage successive generations of women students in understanding the excitement and promise of a women's college education.

These are the challenges put so forcefully to all of us within and beyond women's colleges by the Mills College students. It is these challenges that are the real meaning of what occurred at Mills.

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