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Professional Opinion

Why women’s colleges are still needed

Helping women learn their strengths will lead to financial and political equality
University Business, May 2016
Jo Allen is president of Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Jo Allen is president of Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Meredith College, celebrating its 125th anniversary, recently adopted a new brand—“Going Strong”—that reflects its reputation, enrollment and financial strength. While Meredith’s fundraising and application rate are the highest in our history, several other women’s colleges have recently either gone coed or closed.

Questioning the relevance of women’s colleges is a bit obvious—and not so easy to answer without becoming defensive about the ways the world continues to devalue women. In the U.S., we still earn less than men (78 cents to a man’s dollar), are still significantly underrepresented in the board rooms and executive suites of top corporations, and hold substantially fewer elected positions than men.

The role of women’s colleges—far beyond their origins in offering access to college degrees—is to help women flourish. Some women’s colleges have focused on women’s leadership; some on career preparation in STEM and other areas where women have been under-represented and dissatisfied; and still others on health care, education and areas where women excel.

Powerful women plan

Meredith has gone a different route, while still encouraging the aspects of development that we know help women succeed. Meredith’s faculty and staff—grounded in explorations and research in positive education, appreciative inquiry and strengths building—have created StrongPoints. It’s an individualized advising/coaching model that helps each student use her strengths in academic, experiential, financial and career planning to build her best college experience.

Just as important is that students learn that, beyond college, planning is a significant skill in building a good life. And our institutional leaders have adopted that same approach in using the strengths of the college to build its strategic plan for the future. It’s dynamic both for our students and our college, and reinforces our relevance and success.

When each woman learns her strengths and explores how they might open opportunities for her future, she learns that she is, in fact, quite powerful. For Meredith students, “empowerment of women” is now a concrete term tied to planning and follow-through.

Prepared for fulfilling futures

Meredith and other thriving women’s colleges are not the same institutions they were at their founding, and they continue to evolve. They are dynamic in their use of data about women’s real lives and what students most want from college and beyond: Careers with opportunities for advancement? Yes. Healthy, happy, and stable homes? Goes without saying. Contributing to a community and a country that value her? Of course.

Women’s colleges provide the space and support for students to see their potential in ways that other colleges frequently miss. The outcomes at women’s colleges are unmistakable: Graduates report being more prepared for leadership, are more likely to graduate in four years, are more likely to earn graduate degrees, and feel more prepared for life.

Employers appreciate our graduates’ accomplishments, work-readiness, and contributions to the workforce. Some 96 percent of Meredith students find quality jobs or enroll in top graduate programs within a few short months of graduation.

‘Essence of relevance’

To think that women’s colleges have not changed is to miss a big story in the evolution of these colleges and higher education in general. To think women’s colleges are not relevant is to miss the ways they speak to unique challenges and opportunities. To think these schools are not appealing is to ignore the voices of eager students whose enthusiasm for the women’s college experience explains our enrollment growth and our alumnae satisfaction rates.

Women do, indeed, know that their world is different from that of their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons. They are proactive in seeking out what that means and how to be satisfied with that difference—or how to work to change it. Women’s colleges help students engage the strengths that will serve them in pursuing these questions, making adjustments and building their best life.

That is the essence of relevance.

Jo Allen is president of Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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