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New Relevance for Women's Colleges

Expanded missions and marketing strategies are helping this niche group of colleges grow.
University Business, Aug 2005

Harvard's President Lawrence Summers did much more this winter than question whether "innate differences" made it more difficult for women to achieve in math and science. He unintentionally created an opportunity for women's colleges to market themselves. His widely published remarks, which Summers later said were misconstrued, put a new focus on women in higher education. While women faculty at Harvard protested Summers' comments, the leaders at women's colleges used the media coverage to their advantage.

These institutions, which include such famous names as Smith (Mass.) and Bryn Mawr (Pa.) as well as many lesser known colleges and universities, made a new case for single-sex education. It's not that these colleges and universities haven't been playing up their strengths all along. It is just that Summers made women in higher ed a hot topic.

"Women can't do science?" read the headline of a full-page advertisement the Women's College Coalition ran in The New York Times on March 20, 2005. The 60 or so women's colleges who make up the coalition claimed that, "Our students are expected to achieve in science... and they do."

Women's colleges made their best case. They noted that they graduate women in the math and science fields at 1.5 times the rate of co-ed institutions, according to the coalition, which quotes several studies, including the National Survey of Student Engagement. (That is not to say institutions are satisfied with the representation of women in science. A new initiative from the National Science Foundation is urging that grant money be given to women and other minority groups who want to study science.)

The women's college graduation rate in math and science fields has been widely quoted on the websites and marketing materials of coalition members. It has been known for some time that women report a more satisfactory experience in single-sex higher ed institutions, but recent events create the opportunity to trot out these facts yet again. The national engagement survey posits that women in these colleges have a better chance at assuming leadership roles and seeing role models in action. They report having more self-esteem and satisfaction with their education.

"Lawrence Summers re-ignited a very compelling argument," says Susan Lennon, executive director of the Women's College Coalition. While she denies that his comments created a blatant marketing opportunity for coalition's members, she does concede that he helped raise the volume on the discourse.

"He provided us an opportunity to make a statement," she says.

For the past few months, women college presidents have been re-explaining their missions to the media, to parents, and prospective students. It is an odd turn of events, considering the most media attention on women's colleges before this winter was on Wells College (N.Y.), which announced last October that it would admit men in its undergraduate programs for the first time. Students and parents protested, but Wells administrators stuck to their plan to go co-ed, explaining that this was the best way to increase enrollment in its undergraduate programs. At Wells, incoming classes had dropped to 100 students in recent years. In September, Wells will reportedly enroll 130 students, 22 of them males, out of an applicant pool of 1,012.

By going co-ed, Wells joined a number of other prominent colleges, including Vassar (N.Y.), which were founded as single-sex institutions but now admit men for undergraduate studies. While administrators at these colleges argue that the switch to co-ed, undergraduate enrollment was necessary for their growth, the women's colleges remaining true to there original missions are arguing, anew, for their place in higher education.

Of course, behind the scenes, many of the traditional women's colleges have had to make their own adjustments to keep growing.

Under federal law, all have to accept men in their graduate school programs. That leaves the challenge of marketing single-sex education as a benefit to women undergraduates.

Several of the urban-based colleges have worked to find new undergraduate applicant pools. The Roman Catholic religious women's colleges were founded at the beginning of the last century to educate the daughters of European immigrants who were the first in their families to be college educated. Those based in big cities provided the protective and small-school feeling that appealed to this demographic group.

Today, these women's colleges have had to reach out to new demographic groups to stay viable. It is more likely that black and Hispanic women in these urban areas are seeking more options for higher education, as are recent Asian immigrants.

The College of Saint Catherine (Minn.) has effectively reached out to Humong women, part of the Asian population in its home city of St. Paul. A recent grant award allowed the college to produce a promotional video specifically for this population. "The video let us speak about higher education to this group," says Sister Andrea Lee, president of the college more affectionately known as St. Kate's. "These deliberate efforts pay off.

"This college has constantly adapted to the needs of the times," she says. During World War II, St. Kate's enrolled Japanese women, giving them an alternative to internment in concentration camps set up on the West Coast.

"In St. Paul we have a significant population of immigrant women. Almost all of them are Muslim. We wanted to make this a safe place to be," Lee says. While staying true to its Roman Catholic tradition, the college has added a prayer room for its growing Muslim student population and has been welcoming of students of other faiths.

The result has been seven straight years of enrollment growth, says Lee.

Currently, St. Kate's enrolls 4,800 students. Of the 2,800 students who are undergraduates, only 1,800 are traditional students. The others are recent immigrants and older women. St. Kate's has added weekend programs for these and other undergraduates. Such scheduling has been more common for graduate programs, she notes. This non-traditional scheduling has aided enrollment growth.

Another Roman Catholic IHE, Trinity University (D.C.) has also capitalized on its urban location--seeking new demographics for admissions. The college has reportedly enrolled more black women from its urban area. Today, 85 percent of Trinity's 1,650 students are non-white, up from a reported 24 percent in 1975.

Agnes Scott College (Ga.) has also increased its recruitment effort, says President Mary Brown Bullock. Bullock, president of the Atlanta-based college since 1995, has helped grow enrollment from about 400 10 years ago to its current 1,000. (When the student body total surpassed the 1,000 mark, all students were asked to gather outside and make a "1,000" formation. An aerial shot of the students is being used in promotional pieces.)

In addition to forming an internal admissions task force, Bullock has focused on outreach to students outside the U.S.

"We don't send someone abroad," she explains. "This is all done online." Staffers interact with international students who show interest via e-mail and telephone. Today, about 7 percent of the student population comes from other countries, up from less than 1 percent 10 years ago. Women have come from as far away as Nepal and Ghana.

The Division III school has also upped its athletic recruitment efforts. And while it cannot offer scholarships to athletes, it can ensure that talented athletes will get a chance to play college sports-an opportunity many of these women wouldn't have at a Division I school, says Bullock.

These approaches to admissions illustrate Bullock's belief that women's colleges have to engage in creative marketing strategies. "We try to speak directly to the students. We ask: 'Who will you become?' We turn the dialogue around by not making it about us, but about them," she says.

Agnes Scott, like the other women's college that have survived as single-sex institutions, have had to play up their "ethos." They stress the importance of encouraging women to grow academically. Those who might not feel encouraged to study the sciences are assured they will have a "voice" at a women's college and that they will be encouraged to fully participate.

"How do you make the case for single-sex education?" asks Nancy Bekavac, president of Scripps College (Calif.), which is part of the consortium of Claremont Colleges. Ironically, she turns to a noted co-educational institution, Duke University (N.C.). Former Duke President Nannerl Keohane championed that university's well-known Women's Initiative. In fall 2003, the initiative released a survey that reported on the pressures of Duke women undergraduates to be academically outstanding, while also being fashionable and attractive. The women who participated in the survey said they enrolled at Duke because they were bright and sought academic challenges, yet they ended up lamenting that there were not more women faculty members. Further, they felt the need to be compliant and non-threatening to men, which resulted in lost self-esteem.

To a president, those who lead women's colleges note the Duke findings.

Women's colleges market themselves as a solution to such social limitations at other IHEs. "Other colleges can say they give opportunities to women, but we can say we give them every opportunity," says Bekavac.

Alumnae from women's colleges give back more to their alma maters than other alumni, according to a recent survey. The 2004 survey conducted by the Council for Aid to Education () reports that 52.5 percent of alumnae at women's colleges gave to their colleges or universities, as compared to 12.8 percent of all alumni and 24.8 percent from private, liberal arts colleges. On average, these women alumni gave $1,272; the average gift for all others was $905. The response to Scripps College's recent, five-year capital campaign illustrates this trend. The California college, which is part of the consortium of Claremont Colleges, enticed 87 percent of alumnae to give to the campaign, says President Nancy Bekavac. The college was aiming for $85 million and ended up with $101 million. She believes it is women's connection to the college experience that keeps them loyal. "Women's philanthropy is tied to organizations they feel a part of. They give if they feel involved and if they understand the mission. This makes a huge difference in fundraising."

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