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Southern Women's Colleges: Not at all What I Expected

Hollins University

Hollins University

This summer, I participated in a tour of small women's colleges in North Carolina and Virginia, and had many of my assumptions challenged!

With the recent controversy surrounding Sweet Briar College, much has been written about whether small women's colleges are an anachronism. Whether they will not, and perhaps ought not, survive in today's world. Randolph-Macon Woman's College became Randolph College and admits men. Sophie Newcomb in New Orleans was dissolved following Hurricane Katrina. Douglass College merged with Rutgers University and now exists as one of Rutgers' campuses.

There are only around 35 colleges in the US with enrollments of over 90% women. Collectively, they are small colleges. The largest, St. Catherine's University in St. Paul, MN, enrolls around 3500 students, and the smallest of them may have only 600-700 students. 

However, about 60% of the total undergraduate enrollment in the US is female. What role do women's colleges have in educating the majority of traditional-age students in this country?

After spending time on the campuses of Hollins University, Mary Baldwin College, Salem College, and Meredith College, I have a new perspective on the issue.

I thought they would be too small.

The four colleges I visited ranged from enrollments as few as 618 (Hollins University) to as many as 1662 (Meredith College). Classes are intimate. Students know each other, and faculty know the students. There is little chance of being "just a number" on campus, and it's not easy to sit in the back of the class and not be called on to participate. Every woman on campus has to be involved, and most have to be leaders.

Mary Baldwin College

Mary Baldwin College

Two of the four colleges are located within larger metropolitan areas with other colleges nearby. Meredith (Raleigh, NC) students can take classes at North Carolina State University. Salem (Winston-Salem, NC) students have access to the resources at Wake Forest. Hollins, (Hollins, VA) and Mary Baldwin (Staunton, VA) are within short distances of Washington and Lee, Virginia Military Institute, and Roanoke College.

Yes, they are small, but they are not isolated, and have forged connections that make resources available beyond their own campuses.

I thought they would be enclaves for the daughters of wealthy Southern gentlemen.

I envisioned debutantes wearing pearls, sipping sweet tea, and preparing for membership in the Junior League and the country club. Instead I found diverse student bodies from across the economic spectrum. To my surprise, well over half the students at Mary Baldwin are Pell Grant-eligible. At Salem, about 40% are first generation college students. The numbers were similar at the other colleges. Financial aid, both need-based and merit-based, is generous. The young women here are seizing opportunities for leadership and growth that their mothers and fathers had not had.

I thought women enrolled to pursue their "Mrs." degree.

Salem College

Salem College

Perhaps small Southern women's colleges were once "finishing schools" for those who thought their principal role in life would be as a wife and mother, but I saw little evidence of this at these four colleges! Every where I felt the call to leadership and to preparation for the work force.

Mary Baldwin is the home of the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership (VWIL), the only all-women's corps of cadets in the US. VWIL women can be commissioned as officers in any of the five branches of the US military. And if they don't want to enter the military, they will gain invaluable leadership skills for other careers.

Hollins hosts the Batten Institute of Leadership where students can earn a certificate in leadership studies and prepare for executive positions in business and philanthropy.

Salem College counts among its founders a group of Mennonite women (the "Single Sisters") who walked from Bethlehem, PA to Winston Salem, NC in the late 18th century and founded a school for women's education.

Meredith College is one of only two women's colleges with AACSB-accredited business schools. Their StrongPoints personal coaching program helps young women discover and hone their leadership skills for the future.

Still strong, still relevant

This group of Southern women's colleges has a lot to offer: strong academic programs focused on women's achievement, beautiful surroundings, and personalized attention. 

Meredith College

Meredith College