The decades-long decline of single-sex higher education
In 1960, a college-bound female eager to attend a single-sex school enjoyed a selection of 200 all-women’s colleges from which to choose. Fifty years later, the same applicant would find only 60 such schools, even as the number of colleges in America has grown exponentially. The decline in the number of single-sex institutions parallels a more fundamental decline in the mission of the women’s college.
These institutions can no longer serve their original purpose: providing opportunities for those shut out from the male-dominated world of higher education. While few would deny that gender discrimination still exists, this rationale proves less than compelling when women account for more than half of the college student population. As women continue to advance in society and as the detrimental effects of gender discrimination continue to fade, women’s colleges will continue to decline in number and in purpose.
The Benefits of Women’s Colleges
In the 1960s and 1970s, a combination of social changes, legislative decisions, and increased demand for higher education among baby boomers caused many previously all-male institutions to go coed. In the wake of these shifts, proponents of women’s colleges still argue for the relevance of their institutions. In particular, advocates contend that the schools remain uniquely situated to address issues of gender disparity and discrimination that still put women at a disadvantage in educational and professional life. Frances Spielhagen, author of Debating Single-Sex Education and a professor of education at Mount Saint Mary College, told the HPR that “single-sex education works for some to create a distraction-free environment,” where women can reach their full potential without the pressure to conform to the expectations of men.
Similarly, Rosemary Salomone, a professor of law at St. John’s University, argued that women’s colleges “provide a worthwhile range of leadership opportunities where it’s inevitable that the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper is going to be a woman, [and] all athletic teams will be captained by a woman.” Salomone told the HPR that even an ideal coeducational institution in which leadership positions are split evenly between men and women would not provide women with the same exposure to female leadership as a single-sex school. Salomone argues that women’s colleges expose their students to positions of responsibility and offer female role-models in a way that co-educational institutions cannot.
When Separation Ends
Nonetheless, some argue that single-sex education suffers from significant drawbacks. All-female schools can create an environment in which women become more conscious of their gender, which is not always productive. As Barnard College sophomore Amy Stringer told the HPR, “When I cross-register for classes at Columbia, I become acutely aware of the presence of men and my own status as a woman.” Stringer suggested that women’s colleges can accentuate the feeling of separateness, which can sometimes build one’s confidence, of course, but which can also highlight one’s outsider status.
“One of the real dangers of single-sex education, or single-sex anything for that matter,” noted Spielhagen, “is that separate is different.” She continued, “From that difference, a value judgment can be inferred.” While Spielhagen believes that there is still a place for single-sex education, one can see how the continuation of single-sex education might be counted as a failure for feminism, if indeed it perpetuates gender-based stereotypes and biases. [Ed: An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that Professor Spielhagen believes that continuing single-sex education would be a failure for feminism.]
Women’s colleges today still try to serve the crucial role of preparing women to thrive in a competitive environment. In a society where women are still not paid equal salaries for equal work, the women’s college provides a safe environment to grow academically and to prepare for successful careers. As Stringer noted, “The women’s college still exists because gender is still a major factor in one’s chances for success.”
Nonetheless, single-sex schools face an uncertain future. In a society with no gender discrimination, there would be no need for gender separation, and there would be no women’s colleges. As long as women are systematically disadvantaged, perhaps, the women’s college will have a place. Yet as disadvantages increasingly dissipate, so does the need for such communities. And, as the benefits gained from women’s colleges seem to grow more distant, concerns about their costs become more prominent: Do women’s colleges, rather than breaking down stereotypes, actually help perpetuate them?
Brian Burton ’13 is a Staff Writer.