Last week, Sweet Briar College, a 114-year-old women's college located in rural Virginia, announced that it will be closing its doors in August. The abruptness of the news was remarkable: an institution as firmly established as a college or university rarely faces existential trouble in secret, yet there had been no public indication of the college's dire predicament. In the wake of the announcement, news outlets were flooded with attempts to contextualize the closure, with a national chorus of voices asking variations on the same question: Are women's colleges doomed?

If the decision surprised observers, students and faculty were stunned by the announcement, which was delivered at a campus-wide assembly. "I would have been crying if the shock hadn't been so great," recalls Emily Brooks, a graduating senior. On leaving the auditorium, she encountered one of her professors, who comforted her while they cried together.

"It was so unbelievable, so seemingly out of the blue, that I thought it was a prank," says Sweet Briar alumna Christine Rangel, who graduated in 2001. "There was no outreach, there were no pleas for money, no talk of going co-ed to alleviate enrollment pressures." In the absence of any context or explanation, social media was a natural outlet—members of the college community furiously shared links and commented on their devastation and rage, while parents of current students chimed in to express their confusion and alarm.

"If there is the smallest silver lining" to Sweet Briar's decision and the ensuing turmoil, notes Rangel, it is that "Sweet Briar's closure has appropriately brought up national discussion about the relevance of a women's [college] education, as well as the broader subject of gender equality."

There are many elements at play in the Sweet Briar story—it has been variously discussed as a bellwether for rural colleges, liberal arts colleges, and small colleges. But one inarguably essential feature of Sweet Briar's closure is that it is a women's college, shuttering at a time when the number of women's colleges is dwindling. There were once a few hundred women's colleges in the United States; today there are less than fifty, and about to be one fewer.

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Women's colleges in America find their roots in 18th-century female secondary schools or teaching seminaries, which prepared (unmarried) women for the only respectable public vocation that was available to them. These institutions were founded, as the Women's College Coalition puts it, at a time when rigorous study was viewed as unhealthy for women. At their core, women's colleges still share the focus that defined their origins: to create an environment that facilitates success and education among female students at a level that is not provided by the outside default. Their missions often emphasize leadership, and speak of preparing students to engage critically with the world.

Research backs up those claims: a 2007 study examined data from Indiana University's ongoing National Survey of Student Engagement to describe how students at women's colleges compared with those at coeducational institutions. The results confirmed clear benefits for students at women's colleges: regardless of institutional selectivity, women at single-sex colleges reported higher levels of academic challenge, and were more actively and collaboratively engaged in learning. Students at women's colleges were also more likely to interact with faculty.

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Women's colleges also share a practical commitment to modeling leadership by women, employing female faculty, staff, and administration at higher rates than coeducational institutions. Students "not only learn in the traditional classroom sense what it means to be a leader, but they see it modeled in front of them on a daily basis, with great variety," says Barnard's Dean of the College, Avis Hinkson. "They are able to be in an institution that not only speaks to their development, but also models their development."

But the educational climate is changing. The popularity of women's colleges has declined since its heyday in the mid-20th century, and institutions find themselves having to actively pursue students to communicate the unique benefits they offer. Remaining relevant means adapting their missions for 21st century challenges and contexts, drawing in students by offering new kinds of opportunities—novel academic programs, support for global study, initiatives focused quality of life.

Among institutions that retain dedicated women's undergraduate programs, it has become increasingly common to build coeducational graduate studies programs. Well-established women's colleges with histories dating from the 19th century—Mount Holyoke, Simmons, Hollins, and Mills, for example—continue to advocate the advantages of a liberal arts undergraduate education for women while supporting multiple graduate programs. Leaders at these institutions emphasize that these coed programs are not a divergence from their core mission. For example, when Notre Dame of Maryland University, a historic women's college in Baltimore, decided to open a School of Pharmacy in the mid-2000s, the University framed the decision in the context of its women's college identity.

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"The world of pharmacy is increasingly appealing to women students—the student body is about 60 percent female," notes President Emerita Mary Pat Seurkamp, under whose leadership Notre Dame added many new academic structures. "But we also took a look at the kind of research we might do in the school of pharmacy, and made a commitment that there would be a particular focus on health issues related to women."

Crucially, Seurkamp notes, graduate programs cannot be viewed as the revenue stream needed to support an undergraduate women's college. "There needs to be an expectation that with your various enrollment areas, each of them is carrying their own weight… so that there's not a feeling that graduate programs are carrying the women's college." Notre Dame, like an increasing number of women's institutions, has diversified by adding programs to emphasize a multitude of needs—including part-time and adult education.

Not all institutions may have the desire or ability to take up this model, and for some historic women's colleges, a transition to a fully coeducational institution is the best option. Venerable names such as Vassar and Sarah Lawrence, both of which went co-ed in the 1960s, demonstrate that this change can be made with long-term success. In the short term, women's colleges that choose this path must ease alumni concerns while simultaneously adjusting to accommodate male students.

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At Wilson College, which welcomed its first residential male students this academic year, the transitions included adding men's sports, updating the fitness center, and, with input from female students, developing a housing plan for incoming male students. But Wilson's historic mission remains: "We're still women-centered in our classwork," notes Mary Ann Naso, Wilson's vice president for enrollment. "The male students don't object to that. The students who did enroll here are very respectful of the fact that this was, formerly, a women's college, and that they are the pathfinders in the first group." Naso feels that the change has made the campus more vibrant, and reports that male students are enjoying participation in longstanding college traditions.

Another opportunity, for women's colleges with the advantage of a geographic and ideological closeness to other institutions, is that of forming partnerships with other schools. The Five College Consortium in Massachusetts includes Mount Holyoke and Smith among its members, as well as Amherst, Hampshire, and UMass-Amherst. Spelman and Scripps also benefit from longstanding agreements with partner institutions. Consortiums allow students to cross-register for classes, share resources, and take advantage of the benefits offered by other campuses. Currently, "there is growing economic segregation in higher education," says Lynn Pasquerella, President of Mount Holyoke College. "We need to encourage collaboration among institutions that facilitate the sharing of resources."

The relationship between Barnard College and Columbia University provides an example of an even closer institutional partnership. Though Barnard has been affiliated with Columbia since 1900, it has successfully remained independent, withstanding the fate of institutions like Radcliffe College, a sister school that was subsumed into Harvard University after they began admitting women. Since voting in 1983 to remain an independent women's college, Barnard has thrived by every measure: applications, enrollment, student success.

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While Barnard and Columbia have a unique geographic advantage—they are literally across the street from one another—Hinkson believes that the relationship could potentially serve as a model. "It really is dependent on each institution understanding exactly what they bring to the partnership," she says. "Is it a matter of sharing classes? Is it a matter of teaching different subjects, so that there is an added benefit to each institution? What is the definition of the partnership?" Shared characteristics are not the only component in a working partnership—clarifying the distinctions between institutions plays an important role as well.

Women's colleges, tasked with adapting their missions to a century in which the education of women in America may be fraught with complications but is no longer controversial, often articulate their roles in terms of both heritage and new contexts. The mission statements of both Spelman College and Bennett College note the institutions' dedication to the education of black women while preparing students for a complex, globalized future. Many women's colleges specifically recognize the importance of supporting women entering STEM fields, offering strong science programs with the added benefit of a supportive atmosphere in fields traditionally less welcoming to women. Women's colleges have also become natural spaces for LGBT advocacy; as a recent example, colleges including Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, and Simmons have clarified their admissions policies to explicitly welcome trans women as students. "All institutions have a responsibility to enact policies and engage in practices that reflect their values," says Lynn Pasquerella; women's colleges have a special ability to speak to issues of marginalization.

Though adaptive planning can be difficult to enact, women's colleges often work together to address common challenges and priorities. "We're a wonderfully collaborative group, and we share ideas," says Elizabeth Kiss, chair of the Women's College Coalition and president of Agnes Scott College. This kind of shared effort may be one reason why women's colleges, as a sector, have recently grown more robust. "Our enrollment is actually up by 53 percent over the last ten years," Kiss points out, and the number of degrees awarded has also increased—"so it's not like the sector is dying."

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There are recurring themes in the way women's colleges explain their 21st century priorities: communication, adaptation, heritage. It is common for institutions to reframe themselves and update their structures; it is essentially unheard of for a college to close suddenly and without warning.

All of this brings us back to Sweet Briar: what happened that could have made wholesale and immediate closure the only option? Leadership at the college has pointed to rising costs and declining enrollment as key culprits, specifically citing the decline in young women seeking women's colleges. Sweet Briar—which retains an endowment of $94 million, most of that restricted to specific uses—maintains that its closing in five months will allow the college to support students as they transfer, pay off debts, and put together severance packages for faculty and staff.

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But those explanations are not good enough for alumnae like Rangel. "I just want to know why," she says, flummoxed by the complete lack of communication about the college's dire situation. "Every decision about the school has always been widely and openly discussed."

Sweet Briar alumnae had a Saving Sweet Briar website in place hours after the college's announcement. By the next day, alumnae had formed subcommittees, and their 501(c)3 status is now in place. The group has raised $2.75 million to date, and plans to mount a legal challenge to stop the college's closure.

Though there is precedent for alumnae taking a board to court to keep their school open, their fight will be difficult—with only five months until the college plans to close, there is little margin for error. Sweet Briar has arranged "teach out" arrangements with four partner institutions to facilitate student transfers; Saving Sweet Briar is urging students to wait, to give them an opportunity to mount their legal challenge. Alumnae remain hopeful, both about the possible outcomes of their fight and about the broader implications. "I am hearing a resounding message that colleges like Sweet Briar are still necessary," Rangel says. "And I hope teenage girls are taking note of this discussion."

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Answering the lingering questions about what happened at Sweet Briar is important for understanding how women's institutions can protect their viability. Further investigation may yield more information about whether the board's actions speak to challenges posed broadly to liberal arts colleges or women's institutions, or indicate a tangle of college-specific peculiarities.

Ultimately, these kinds of institutional questions play out in the lived experience of the students the institutions serve. "Everything that Sweet Briar has taught me will follow me into the next chapters of my life," says Emily Brooks, who graduates this spring, and will begin veterinary school in the fall. "This environment taught me the value of hard-work, lifted my self-esteem, and showed me the importance of self-empowerment."

Could a coed institution have done the same? The small but vocal minority of students and alumni who attend women's colleges would likely say no, and count on their colleges' advocacy to back up this stance. But now, with Sweet Briar, a century of history has been reversed: it's the female students trying to protect the school.

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Kristen Gunther is a writer and graduate student in ecosystem management and ecology. She is interested in the interactions between research, education, and communication as they relate to broader social issues—environment and gender in particular. She can be found online at kristengunther.com. The daughter and granddaughter of women's college alumnae, she hopes this counts as an early Mother's Day present.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby