Women’s Colleges: The Complete Guide

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As you’re putting together your college list, looking into women’s colleges might not have crossed your mind. But for many reasons, women’s colleges are worth considering. Although their numbers in the United States are dwindling, applications to women’s colleges are climbing.

Women’s colleges are known for producing accomplished graduates who fill leadership roles and rise to success in their industries. They also provide a unique experience that many alumnae say they will remember and cherish for a lifetime. In this guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know to decide if a women’s college is right for you.

What Is a Women’s College?

Women’s colleges are degree-granting institutions that only admit women. Originally, these institutions were founded to give women educational opportunities equal to those provided to men. There were once over 200 of these colleges in the United States. Today, only 40 remain. They are mostly liberal arts colleges, and several of them are nationally ranked.

Famous graduates of women’s colleges include Zora Neale Hurston, Madeleine Albright, Helen Keller, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, Nancy Pelosi, Mary McLeod Bethune, Hillary Clinton, Meryl Streep, and Katharine Hepburn.

Many women’s colleges have partnerships with nearby co-educational universities. Through these partnerships, students can take both women’s only classes at their schools and co-ed classes at the partner school. With or without these partnerships, women’s colleges are known for providing a top-notch education, quality resources, and an incredible sense of community.

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Why Select a Women’s College?

Women’s colleges aren’t the right fit for everyone, but there are many reasons these schools are worth considering.

Many women feel more comfortable challenging themselves, taking academic risks, and actively participating in class when their classmates are other women. They report gaining more independence, confidence, and self-understanding than women at co-ed colleges. Small class sizes at most women’s colleges also mean more personalized attention and support from school faculty.

And that’s not all—here are some more advantages to consider:

Academic Rigor

Women’s colleges are academically rigorous. After all, they were founded with the goal of providing high-quality higher education to women. Three women’s colleges are ranked among the Top 25 liberal arts colleges in the nation: Wellesley College, Smith College, and Barnard College.

Career Preparation

The Women’s College Coalition reports that students who attend women’s colleges are more likely to graduate, to attend graduate school, and to be successful in their careers. They are also likelier to hold themselves to high expectations.

Most women’s colleges are small, giving students access to extensive resources and support. Students learn the skills employers expect, and they receive guidance in launching solid careers after graduation.

More Opportunities

In the absence of men, all opportunities and leadership positions at women’s colleges go to women. Academic disciplines traditionally dominated by men are filled with women instead. Students at women’s colleges not only have more opportunities, but they may also feel more comfortable pursuing these opportunities.

This may explain why women who attend women’s colleges earn their degrees in STEM fields at 1.5-2.5 times the rate of women at co-ed colleges. Alumnae of women’s colleges represent just 2 percent of the total college graduate population, yet they make up 10 percent of female CEOs in the S&P 500, 20 percent of women in Congress, and 33 percent of women on Fortune 100 boards.

Opportunities are not limited by gender bias, and women feel a sense of support and belonging in whatever field they choose. Often, they are mentored by successful female role models in those fields.

Strong Sense of Community

The unique environment of a women’s college allows for strong, lifelong bonds and a deep sense of camaraderie and community. Small communities of women join to understand, uplift, and support one another. They are surrounded by role models and peers who value and respect them.

Graduates of women’s colleges also say it’s inspiring to attend school amongst a community of intelligent, driven women who desire to make an impact.

Rich Traditions

Numerous traditions have been passed on by generations of women at women’s colleges. Just a few examples include:

  • Mountain Day at Mount Holyoke College: An unscheduled day off from classes that started in 1838, Mountain Day begins with the clock tower bell ringing at 7 AM. Students gather on Mount Holyoke to relax, explore, and eat ice cream.
  • Lantern Night at Bryn Mawr: Sophomore students at Bryn Mawr welcome first-year students by presenting them with lanterns in their class color. The ceremony represents the light of knowledge being passed from one class to another.
  • Friday Tea at Smith College: For more than 100 years, women at Smith College have shared tea, snacks, and conversation to close out the week. This tradition continues with weekly tea in the living room of each on-campus house.
  • Hooprolling at Wellesley College: Seniors at Wellesley decorate wooden hoops and roll them down Tupelo Lane with wooden sticks, all while wearing their Commencement gowns. Little Sisters (underclasswomen) camp out the night before to save a spot for their Big Sisters (upperclasswomen). It’s said that the winner will be the first to “achieve happiness and success, whatever that means for her.” She’s also thrown into Lake Waban by her Wellesley Sisters!

These traditions contribute to the school pride and close-knit community of women’s colleges.

Accomplished Alumnae Network

Graduates of women’s colleges join an alumnae network consisting of many CEOs, business leaders, politicians, university presidents, and other highly successful women. This alumnae base is generally active, involved, and supportive. Students who attend women’s colleges can tap into an extensive network of accomplished industry leaders committed to helping other women succeed too.

Drawbacks to Attending a Women’s College

Despite the many benefits of attending a women’s college, it’s not the right fit for every student. Consider your personal preferences and what you would like to get out of your college experience.

Women’s colleges are mostly small, with 5,000 students or fewer. If you’ve always wanted to attend a big school, a women’s college might not be for you. The same applies if you want a school with an active Greek life and Division I sports teams, or one that’s known for its vibrant social scene and party atmosphere. This isn’t to say that women’s colleges aren’t fun, but the mindset and atmosphere are different.

The biggest difference to consider, of course, is that you would go to school with only women. Depending on the college, you could have the opportunity to take some co-ed classes at nearby schools. But much of the time, you would attend class, eat, socialize, and live with exclusively women.

These aren’t necessarily drawbacks. Some students embrace the smaller size and quieter social life. It’s all up to you and how you want your college experience to look! And like any other college, every women’s college is different. The curriculum, environment, traditions, activities, and surrounding area vary. If you’re curious about women’s colleges, we recommend visiting a few campuses in person. Once on campus, you’ll likely know if you can picture yourself there.

Top-Ranked Women’s Colleges

Almost all women’s colleges fall into the category of “liberal arts colleges.” Liberal arts colleges emphasize a broad approach to the arts, science, and humanities. They are typically small and provide a more personalized educational experience. Several women’s colleges are highly ranked in U.S. News and World Report’s list of National Liberal Arts Colleges:

  • Wellesley College in Wellesley, MA (4)
  • Smith College in Northampton, MA (15)
  • Barnard College in New York, NY (22)
  • Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, PA (28)
  • Scripps College in Claremont, CA (28)
  • Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA (34)
  • Spelman College in Atlanta, GA-also an HBCU (54)
  • Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA (61)
  • College of St. Benedict in Collegeville, MN (96)
  • Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN (96)

Other women’s colleges include:

  • Alverno College in Milwaukee, WI
  • Bay Path University in Longmeadow, MA
  • Benett College in Greensboro, NC-also an HBCU
  • Brenau University in Gainesville, GA
  • Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA
  • College of Saint Mary in Omaha, NE
  • Converse College in Spartanburg, SC
  • Cottey College in Nevada, MO
  • Hollins University in Roanoke, VA
  • Judson College in Marion, AL
  • Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, VA
  • Meredith College in Raleigh, NC
  • Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, PA
  • Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles, CA
  • Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore, MD
  • Salem College in Winston-Salem, NC
  • Simmons University in Boston, MA
  • Catherine University in St. Paul, MN
  • Stephens College in Columbia, MO
  • Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, VA
  • Texas Woman’s University in Denton, TX
  • Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C.
  • Wesleyan College in Macon, GA

Choosing a Women’s College

Choosing a women’s college is a lot like choosing a traditional college. Factors to consider include:

  • Location (including proximity to home, weather, and surrounding area)
  • Tuition
  • Access to opportunities, internships, and recreational activities
  • On-campus clubs and activities
  • Reputation and rigor
  • Strength of program in the major you’d like to pursue
  • Curriculum, courses, and professors
  • Overall culture fit
  • Proximity to co-ed schools; availability of co-ed classes (if important to you)

You also want to apply to schools where you have a solid chance of acceptance. Compare your GPA and test scores (if applicable) to the average GPA and test scores of admitted students. If you’re in the 25th percentile or lower, the school is a reach, but that doesn’t mean you can’t apply. Simply make sure you apply to several target schools as well.

As always, it’s useful to research the school’s website, reach out to current or former students if possible, check out online message boards, and take a virtual or in person tour of campus. Visiting campus is the best way to determine which school feels most like home to you. If you can picture yourself happily living and learning there for four years, and it looks good on paper, then you’ve found your college!

The Women’s College Coalition offers a helpful resource to browse women’s colleges. Each college has a profile listing general information, points of pride, history, and areas of study. You can also search schools by academic interest, degree type, and class options (online or on campus).

Final Thoughts: Women’s Colleges

If attending a women’s college sounds interesting to you, it’s definitely worth applying. Benefits include:

  • Academic rigor
  • Career preparation
  • Extensive opportunities
  • Rich traditions
  • Close-knit community and lifelong friendships
  • Accomplished network of supportive alumnae

Additionally, some women’s colleges are prestigious and highly ranked, including Wellesley, Smith, Barnard, Bryn Mawr, and Scripps. And if you’re also considering attending an HBCU, Spelman College or Benett College could be great fits for you.

Women’s colleges offer a unique and empowering experience that prepares women for leadership and achievement. Graduates go on to success in STEM fields, as CEOs, and in other prominent business and political roles at higher rates than female graduates of traditional colleges.

Do your research like you’d research any other college, visit campus (or several campuses), and see if the experience is right for you.

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