Since 2016, women’s colleges across the United States have seen a bump in application numbers. Many women’s college leaders speculate that this surge may have something to do with the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
This uptick in applications “is particularly notable given that in the country as a whole, we are in a time of stable to falling numbers of high school graduates,” argues Nathan Grawe, an economics professor at Carleton College. “[A] surge in applications over the last five years makes you sit up and ask, ‘What is causing this?’”
The 2016 election
While students in 2016 made their final enrollment decisions after Donald Trump was elected, their applications were sent in and their planning was done before the election and before rise of the Me Too movement, notes Scott Jaschik in an article for Inside Higher Ed. Leaders at Agnes Scott College, which welcomed its largest class in the college’s history in 2018, suggest their surge in enrollment could be thanks to reforms in curriculum that emphasize global and leadership skills.
Regardless, interest in women’s colleges continues to grow. Across the last five years, Barnard College has seen a 64% increase in applications, Mount Holyoke College 23.6%, Smith College 25%, Wellesley College 40%, and Bryn Mawr College 23.1%, according to New England Cable News (NECN).
More recently, Bryn Mawr, for example, experienced not only an 8% increase in applications between 2017 and 2018, but also a yield increase of four percentage points. And Barnard has seen a 10% increase in applications and a yield increase from 51% to 55% since 2016.
College leaders note that campus visits have also been on the rise. And application essays are beginning to focus more on issues of sexism and privilege, as well as political movements, campaigns, and protests than those in the past.
“[Women’s colleges] are great schools. People have always been interested in us because we are great schools,” says Kim Cassidy, president of Bryn Mawr. “I think, prior to 2016, many high school girls didn’t look at us because they didn’t understand what it would mean to be at a women’s college.”
Jennifer Fondiller, vice president of enrollment at Barnard, suggests that the college’s applicants seem to be “acutely aware of what is happening in the world as current events have motivated them to fight for social justice and equality… They are looking for colleges that will prepare them to enter these challenging spaces and navigate these conversations with confidence.”
In fact, when Mount Holyoke students were asked why they decided to enroll in the college in 2018, 54% cited social movements as factors that influenced their decision “quite a bit” or “very much.”
But whether or not social movements have influenced student enrollment decisions, they are no doubt shaping the conversations at women’s colleges. For example, at Douglass College, the women’s college at Rutgers University, all students take a seminar-style course that addresses gender inequality, “Knowledge and Power: Issues in Women’s Leadership.”
In this course, students discuss issues related to harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence, as well as power differentials among races. As one Douglass alumna recalls, “‘Knowledge and Power’ made me a better feminist. It made me a better ally. Most importantly, it made me a better person.”
An empowering campus environment
Women’s colleges may also be drawing students in with their promise of an empowering campus environment and their track record for post-grad success, writes Emma Barnett for NECN. She points to one study that found that women’s colleges receive higher effectiveness ratings than other institutions for job preparation—and that their alumnae were more likely than other groups to complete a graduate degree.
After all, “a growing body of research, including EAB’s own this past year, tells us that students’ sense of belonging on campus is crucial not only for student success and persistence, but for student equity,” reads one EAB expert insight. “Feeling respected, welcomed, and valued is correlated with outcomes like higher grades, retention, and engagement.”
Students who attend women’s colleges may also receive stronger leadership training, writes Barnett. “Wellesley grads… step easily into leadership positions,” says Martha Casey, a lawyer and Wellesley alumna. “When we were running our school, dominating our own classes, and interacting with one another as undergrads, it seemed natural to us.”
Female students who “are exposed to powerful female role models… are more likely to endorse the notion that women are well suited for a leadership role,” says recent Barnard grad Xonatia Lee. “It is important to invest in a women’s education and build their leadership skills.”
“Even though women have made so much progress, I think that women are still facing things like being scared to speak up in the classroom, they feel like they are overshadowed by men,” adds Amy Iwanowicz, a recent graduate of Smith. “Women’s colleges have historically served as a place to empower and inspire women.”
Read more about enrollment trends
The college-age population is predicted to fall by almost 15%, predicts economist Nathan Grawe. He recently spoke with EAB to discuss how colleges should respond.