The first American women’s colleges were founded more than 250 years ago in the face of deep-seated discrimination against educating women. These institutions cast open the doors of opportunity for women’s education, changing the face of this nation and the world for the better. However, fewer than 35 American women’s colleges remain, despite the fact that they continue to serve women, especially those from underserved communities.
Many women’s colleges were intentionally founded with the goal of affordability for lower- and middle-income women—a bold innovation for the time—which has led to persistent funding disparities. At the same time, we are often asked whether the world still needs women’s colleges, given that women make up 59.5% of undergraduate students.
The answer is that women’s colleges are absolutely necessary. These institutions have unmatched strength and focus when it comes to creating mobility, especially for women of color. Currently, 40% of students at women’s colleges are Pell Grant recipients, 93% receive aid, 50% are BIPOC and nearly a third of our institutions are federally designated Minority Serving Institutions. At St. Catherine University, half of our undergraduate students identify as BIPOC; one-third are first-time college students, and all of our students receive some form of financial aid. From uniquely preparing women to lead a global society and closing the gap in male-dominated fields, to being epicenters of inclusive excellence and creating a community that promotes lifelong learning and connection beyond graduation - women's colleges have more relevance today than ever before.
Women’s colleges today continue to play a vital role in the higher education landscape by designing college experiences in which women are the focus, and the drivers, of academic excellence. At St. Kate's our students create their own Compass, a path that helps students build the skills to make an impact on their community, workplace, and society through a social justice lens. It's one way students learn how to become ethical, effective, and enduring leaders. Women’s colleges provide nurturing, empowering and inclusive environments that help young women find their voices and find the encouragement they need to take risks, push boundaries and succeed personally and professionally. Women’s colleges also emphasize leadership, designing coursework around that concept. These institutions provide an important and unique educational opportunity for women to live, learn and develop in supportive communities that develop them for positions of leadership.
As the American workforce shifts more towards science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, we need women’s colleges more than ever. According to the American Association of University Women, women make up only 28% of the STEM workforce, with women of color comprising just 5% of the total. On average, the faculties of women’s colleges and universities are 65% women–more than double the rate nationally. Research has shown that women perform better in introductory math and science undergraduate courses and are more likely to pursue STEM majors when their professors are also women. Women’s colleges and universities proudly confer a significantly higher percentage of bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields to American women of color than at liberal arts colleges, according to a Collectif study by Kathryn Enke (2020).
We know that diverse teams produce better outcomes. Across universities, the number of BIPOC students who enroll in a STEM discipline today is comparable to the number of white students. However, the numbers drastically decline when we look at graduation rates and job placement. We aspire to change the faces of leadership in science, tech, engineering, and math—to better reflect the communities these fields serve. The biggest reason students either switch their STEM major or drop out from college is they feel unwelcomed or unseen. St. Kate's addresses this by delivering an exceptional education as well as developing the student’s sense of belonging. We have always served women at St. Kateʼs, but there is more to do in order to attract, retain, graduate and place BIPOC women in STEM positions.
Women’s colleges share a unique ability to empower women, connecting the next generation of women student leaders with access, insight, and training. The continued success of women’s colleges is needed not only for the sake of women’s parity, but also for the success of our nation as a whole. We know that diversity in the workplace leads to greater levels of creativity, innovation, and productivity. When women from different backgrounds are truly supported, we all benefit.