Although there are now fewer than 60 women’s colleges nationwide, the indisputable statistics of the “women’s college effect” are widely known: Graduates of women’s colleges constitute more than 20 percent of women in the United States Congress and 30 percent of a Business Week list of rising women stars in corporate America. Alumnae of women’s colleges claim a long list of firsts, including first female Secretary of State, first female general in the U.S. Army, and first female general manager for the Associated Press. Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton, the first woman to be considered for the White House in many years, is a Wellesley College alumna. One-third of the women on Fortune 1000 boards are graduates of women’s colleges. The list goes on.
What those examples tell us — and a recent study commissioned by the Women’s College Coalition (WCC) reinforces — is that women’s colleges continue to serve a vital role in society. That role is no longer one of simply providing access to higher education — thousands of colleges and universities nationwide now offer co-ed enrollment, a dramatic change from the environment at the turn of the 20th century. It is, however, just as critical: Women’s colleges offer choice. A better choice, argues the Hardwick-Day study, which included interviews with female alumnae of co-ed and single-sex colleges who graduated between 1970 and 1997.
In September 2007, data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) — which Mary Baldwin students participated in for the first time that year — demonstrated that students at women’s colleges are more engaged than their peers at other institutions. The more recent Hardwick-Day study focused on women’s colleges success in creating leaders, developing critical thinking skills, engaging with faculty, and advancing after college:
Fostering leadership potential
“Speaking up and speaking out — key components of leadership and civic engagement — are actively encouraged at women’s colleges,” according to the WCC. The Hardwick-Day data shows that 55 percent of women’s college alumnae report routinely making classroom and group presentations as part of their education, compared with about 40 percent of graduates of public flagship colleges and universities. Women’s college alumnae are also dramatically more likely (43 percent versus 13 percent at “public flagships”) to gain leadership experience as a member of student government or campus organizations.
Mary Baldwin University actively encourages leadership development and self-confidence in its classrooms and its community. “I can’t imagine taking a class where I wasn’t required to give an oral presentation,” said communication major Elizabeth Dattilio ’09. “Although public speaking can be a source of anxiety for me, I would feel ill-prepared for a workplace without that experience.” In addition to speaking up in class, Mary Baldwin revived an historic tradition that is now called the Capstone Festival in 2006, giving students nominated by their professors the opportunity to present their senior theses to a wider audience of the college community and the public. Mary Baldwin also offers to all students an academic minor in leadership studies — the program must be completed by cadets in the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership. And if formalized leadership training isn’t a student’s thing,she can get on-the-job experience as a leader of one or more of dozens of student organizations, from Student Government Association to Baldwin Program Board to Caribbean Students Association.
Critical skills for work