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Disrupting the Daisy Chain: What Modern Women's Colleges Really Do

03/10/2015 06:38 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015

Defying the conventional wisdom that it's almost impossible to kill a college, the trustees of Sweet Briar College decided to make a swift end of that distinguished institution when they saw no way out of the inevitable decline in the school's enrollment. Pundits quickly leapt at this stunning news as evidence that women's colleges are finis, that it's only a matter of time before the remaining such institutions join the graveyard of outmoded educational ideas.

Such conclusions ignore the fact that millions of women continue to suffer educational, and, hence, economic deprivations in the United States and around the world. Educating women is essential to alleviating poverty, fostering economic development, improving the health and education of children. Women's colleges have long served as gateways for educational and economic opportunity for women, and have been a voice for women's education worldwide. We were all founded because women were once radically excluded from educational opportunities. While coeducation opened opportunities to many women, others remained on the margins because of their life circumstances. So long as some women remain on the margins, women's colleges will be relevant and necessary.

The question is not whether such institutions should continue, but how and in what form. Women's colleges -- or any other colleges, for that matter -- that only exist as museums to nostalgia and history will and should fail. Successful women's colleges -- like successful businesses everywhere -- are those that understand and are able to adapt programs and services for each rising generation.

Women's colleges were agents of disruption in 19th and 20th Century American higher education and society. Long before women were welcome at Harvard, Princeton and Georgetown, women's colleges were educating the students who went on to become powerful "first woman" leaders like the very first woman in the Cabinet, appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (Mt. Holyoke '02); and later so many more: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (Trinity '62), Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (Wellesley '59), Vice Presidential Candidate Geraldine Ferrero (Marymount Manhattan '56), University of Chicago President Hannah Holborn Gray (Bryn Mawr), Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust (Bryn Mawr), and remarkable leaders, writers and activities like Margaret Mead (Barnard '23), Zora Neale Hurston (Barnard '28), Rachel Carson (Chatham), Admiral Grace Hopper (Vassar '28), Bette Friedan (Smith '42) and Gloria Steinem (Smith '56).

That short list is emblematic of the tens of thousands of accomplished women's college graduates whose achievements eventually made coeducation possible by demonstrating the intellectual power and leadership capacity of women. They silenced the doubters and critics of women's education while also revealing an irresistibly powerful market of talent that the men's colleges rushed to embrace in the latter half of the 20th Century.

News stories about Sweet Briar's demise cite the fact that in 1960 there were about 230 institutions identifying as women's colleges, and just 43 today. Lost in the translation is the fact that of the original number, more than half were small Catholic colleges sustained by the "contributed services" of religious sisters. When the free labor of those great women disappeared after Vatican II changed the Church in the 1960s, the economic basis of the Catholic women's colleges changed for the worse, and many closed or merged.

Equally important about the statistics is the fact that the majority of the historic women's colleges actually still exist as coeducational institutions, albeit most with a large majority of women. The decision to "go coed" did not mean a loss for women, but an adaptation of the institutional business model. Women's colleges seem to be the only sector where a certain "purity" is expected in the student population; HBCU's have students of all races, Catholic colleges have many students of other faiths, but a woman's college with men suddenly no longer seems to exist. Some of us are proving that wrong.

Today, in the 21st Century, successful women's colleges continue to embrace their disruptive souls along the leading edge of the demographic, curricular and social changes that must be the future of all colleges and universities. Whether Wellesley's acceptance of transgender women, or the College of New Rochelle's "First in the World" leadership with adult students, or Trinity's embrace of Dreamers and a majority of low income women of color, or others launching online programs and forging partnerships for women abroad, the women's colleges that are thriving are those who leverage their ongoing countercultural roles as voices and advocates and gateways for women through college and into the larger society.

These institutions stopped clinging to their daisy chains long ago. Lovely traditions still exist, of course -- as is true at every major university. Nobody thinks Georgetown soft at the edges because of that bulldog and pervasive Hoya Saxa culture, so why should women's colleges suffer patronizing dismissal because of the persistence of hoop rolling, quaint songs and class colors? It's hard to imagine any women's college tradition that quite matches the fervor of terrapins in College Park or goats in Annapolis. Give the condescension a rest!

More important, recognize that women who have never enjoyed the camaraderie of other women, never had faculty members boosting their success (especially in math and science), never knew the true joy of presenting their own creative work to an appreciative audience, never thought they could really go on to graduate school, get that prized job or earn the praise and recognition of peers and community leaders alike -- all women deserve such a chance, and such chances exist still on the campuses of today's women's colleges.

Women's colleges persist not because we want to preserve institutions, but rather, because too many women still find educational and economic opportunity elusive. While, across history, all women suffered a great deal of inequality, some women have found more level playing fields. But the success of a few does not mean the end of gateways to opportunity for others. For every woman who has "made it" in business and civic life, there are millions more who remain on the margins. Even the fact that women are the majority of all students in higher education today does not mean that all women have equal opportunity in college. Women of color and low income women remain largely on the outside. Even more privileged women often find coeducational campuses still very chilly and sometimes places of abuse, as the current campus rape crisis illustrates.

Women's colleges that are thriving today have adapted in several key ways to the contemporary educational needs of women.

First, we welcome women broadly, becoming broadly inclusive rather than narrowly exclusive, promoting greater access and providing greater financial aid support than ever in the past. At Trinity, for example, with a century-long tradition as one of the nation's first Catholic women's colleges, we have become a Minority Serving Institution with more than 90 percent of our students African American and Latina. Our median family income is just $25,000; most of our students work, and many of them are young mothers. We also have a large population of adult students and graduate students. We educate more D.C. residents than any private college or university in the nation.

Second, we do not treat men as the enemy. In fact, most women's colleges today welcome men into many programs on campus. Our students live in neighborhoods, go to work and internships every day in the coeducational world. Men are part of our lives, and they, too, benefit from the ways in which the women's college model emphasizes respect for gender and all personal differences.

Third, we have diversified our programs and services to include professional programs in business and healthcare, graduate education, masters and doctoral degrees. Some, including Trinity, also offer associates degrees. A number have additional locations and online programs. Our sports venues are open to our communities and we make good use of auxiliary businesses. We are complex universities, not small colleges, and the multiple product lines create diversified revenue streams that ensure fiscal soundness.

Fourth, we continue to cherish the liberal arts but are more explicit about the ways in which liberal arts are the foundation for work as well as life. The liberal arts foundation develops the ability to analyze and synthesize, reason critically, create and use data strategically, speak and write exceptionally well, tell stories accurately and with creative flair; to understand history and economics and the role of religion and art in human life; to know the importance of human genome mapping and how diseases spread; to learn the vital skill of advocacy across many disciplines because you never know when your life as a doctor or poet or teacher or scriptwriter might require testimony. We ensure internships in almost all majors to make sure that students get opportunities to exercise their knowledge and skills, theory to practice.

Finally, we embrace disruption as a challenge to retain our vitality. Turbulence is the condition of higher education today -- liberal arts colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, even law schools are cited as being on the "endangered species" list. Arguably, women's colleges have been in the struggle for far longer, and so we may be ahead of the change dynamic. In fact, by creating more diversified and flexible business models and by welcoming women who have previously been denied access to excellent educational opportunities, we are turning disruption into a lesson for our colleagues in many different kinds of institutions.

Sweet Briar is -- still is -- a great institution. The decision to end its existence later this year is painfully sad. All of us in the community of women's colleges mourn her passing. But the end of Sweet Briar is not another tolling of the bell for women's colleges, but rather, a renewal of the call to action for the rest of us to make sure that we remain strong and vital for the women who need us, women who have been too long on the margins, women who can and will thrive at women's colleges for generations to come.