The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Women have already achieved educational equality. But women’s colleges still matter.

These institutions are serving lower-income and minority students more successfully than many co-ed schools.

Commencement at Sweet Briar College. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

“Oh, is that still an all-girls school?” It’s a response I hear frequently when I tell people I’m president of Agnes Scott College.

There’s a widely held assumption that women’s colleges are anachronistic remnants of a bygone era. Media coverage of the shocking closure — and now reopening, thanks to a court ruling on Monday — of 114-year-old Sweet Briar College has only reinforced this notion, with sepia-toned photographs of Sweet Briar’s early students wearing long white gowns and sunlit shots of current students riding horses, all painting a picture of antiquated gentility.

Four decades have passed since the coeducation wave opened the doors of hundreds of bastions of male academic privilege to women. Today, women are in the majority on campuses nationwide, both in undergraduate programs and in many graduate and professional programs, including law and medicine. Shouldn’t we just declare victory in the fight for women’s equal educational opportunity and let women’s colleges go the way of buggies and white gloves?

What’s missing from this picture is actual knowledge about today’s women’s colleges. As a sector, U.S. women’s colleges are cutting-edge models of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic inclusion and success. At a time when college access and completion, especially for students from underrepresented groups, is an urgent national priority, women’s colleges are providing vital leadership. While there is considerable institutional variation, as a sector women’s colleges enroll higher percentages of low-income, first-generation and minority students than other institutions of higher education.

Of the top 20 “most ethnically diverse” national liberal arts colleges in the latest U.S. News rankings, one-quarter are women’s colleges (including Agnes Scott, which is No. 5). A 2014 study by UCLA professor Linda Sax compared the demographics of women’s colleges, co-ed liberal arts colleges, Catholic colleges, and public and private universities; Sax found that today’s women’s colleges have the lowest median income, the highest percentage of first-generation students and African American students, and the second-highest percentage of Latino students.

The “white glove” image many people have of women’s colleges is utterly divorced from reality. In fact, even at Sweet Briar, which may have matched that image longer than any other school, the first-year class entering in the fall of 2014 was one-third students of color and 43 percent Pell grant recipients.

Women’s colleges don’t simply enroll diverse students; we also help them succeed. Nationally, a large racial gap in college completion persists. According to the U.S. Education Department, the six-year graduation rate in 2012 for African American students at private colleges and universities was much lower than for whites — 44 percent vs. 68 percent. There are also graduation-rate gaps for Latino students, Pell grant recipients and first-generation college students.

By contrast, Agnes Scott’s six-year graduation rate for African American students who entered in 2008 was 73 percent and for Pell grant recipients 71 percent — nearly identical to our overall rate of 74 percent. Nationally, while higher levels of racial, ethnic and economic diversity would predict lower graduation rates, women’s colleges have a higher graduation rate than coeducational colleges.

A 2012 study by a leading educational research firm found that women’s college alumnae are more satisfied, are more confident and felt better prepared for their first jobs than women who graduated from coeducational institutions. Women’s college graduates are also twice as likely to earn a graduate degree as female graduates of flagship public institutions.

And while women’s colleges today enroll just 0.7 percent of female undergraduates, our alumnae are disproportionately represented in leadership roles. Women’s college graduates comprise 9 percent of female CEOs in the S&P 500, 10 percent of women in the U.S. Senate, and 10 percent of Black Enterprise Magazine’s Most Powerful African American Women in Corporate America. Women’s colleges also represent more than 10 percent of the top 75 colleges and universities whose undergraduates go on to earn Ph.D.s.

Of course, as impressive as all this is, none of it matters if women’s colleges can’t pay their bills. Sweet Briar’s student body had become much more racially and economically diverse, but the school’s financial challenges brought it to the brink of closure. No matter how relevant their mission, women’s colleges today, like our coeducational counterparts, have to develop sustainable business models. As health-care pioneer Sister Irene Kraus memorably put it, “No margin, no mission.”

The good news is that many women’s colleges across the country are staying strong through adaptation and innovation. Here at Agnes Scott, we will welcome the largest first-year class in our 126-year-old history this fall, thanks in large part to SUMMIT, a curriculum that provides all students with a focus on global learning and leadership development, supported by a personal board of advisers. Other schools are pursuing different pathways to growth and financial sustainability. Russell Sage College in New York has developed a three-year Discovery Degree; Mary Baldwin College in Virginia has established a College of Health Sciences; and Bay Path University in Massachusetts has launched the American Women’s College, the country’s first online bachelor’s degree program for women.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, women’s colleges were at the forefront of the revolution for civic equality and trailblazers in opening the doors of college to women. Today, we are at the forefront of inclusive excellence as we prepare women from diverse backgrounds for success. That’s why Agnes Scott is, and will proudly remain, a women’s college.