Comparative Study Helps Make the Case for Women’s Colleges

| March 3, 2008

One way to assess higher education institutions is to examine their impact on alumni five, 10, even 30 years after graduation. Data analysis of a survey released today suggests that women’s colleges score better on a number of key measures of educational effectiveness than other private liberal arts schools and public institutions.

The Women’s College Coalition commissioned the comparative study, titled “What Matters in College After College,” by Hardwick-Day Inc. to evaluate elements of the college environment that are known to contribute to students’ positive outcomes. The company drew from its database of more than 10,000 interviews collected since 1998 from alumnae of private and public colleges and universities. The researchers also conducted new interviews with women’s colleges’ alumnae for the study.

The Hardwick-Day survey differs from many previous studies that assess students’ college experiences at graduation or in the first few years afterward. According to the report provided to the WCC, “This study was undertaken to assess the lasting effects, interviewing alumnae of each class including those more than thirty-five years after graduation.”

The survey compares how graduates of women’s, private liberal arts, flagship public and other public colleges and universities responded to questions ranging from how much ethics and values were integrated into classroom discussions to how prepared they felt for their first jobs.

On dozens of measures, women’s colleges surpassed all other categories or were as good as private co-education liberal arts colleges, which tended to have the highest scores. Much of the data affirms what women’s colleges already know – including that their students have more opportunities to lead on campus, that they more often attain graduate degrees and that they benefit from strong personal interactions with professors.

Compared to other alumni from other categories, women’s college graduates rated their alma maters more effective in helping them to think analytically, to write and speak well, and to prepare for career advancement and change. Sixty-two percent felt their schools were extremely effective in helping them develop self-confidence and initiative, versus 42 and 41 percent at liberal arts and flagship public universities respectively.

Additionally, the survey suggests that many differences translate to lifelong values. In their lives after college, more alumnae said being a leader and bringing social and historical perspectives to issues are more important to them than other groups reported.

The findings also debunk some common misconceptions of what women’s colleges do or don’t offer. You might expect better access to equipment at state schools, but 54 percent of women’s college graduates said they “benefited very much from good academic facilities and equipment,” compared to 31 percent at flagship public universities. The figure for liberal arts colleges was 41 percent.

Women’s college alumnae also were much more likely to participate in faculty-directed research or independent study than those from public universities. There was no difference between women’s and other liberal arts colleges on this measure, with 57 percent from both categories reporting participation compared to 36 percent at public flagship universities.

The Hardwick-Day study also identified trends that provide valuable information to prospective students. For example, fewer students receive grants or scholarships to attend women’s colleges than other liberal arts institutions, but the gap narrowed dramatically in recent years. The role of institutional reputation in finding a job or being accepted to a graduate program also varied, having diminished in the last two decades.

This work is another step to document the efficacy of an all-women’s education through reliable and up-to-date research. To that end, the data, presented in a series of bar charts, will serve as a tool for coalition members to make the case individually and collectively for their institutions.

To Sweet Briar College admissions dean Ken Huus, it is a welcome addition to the body of knowledge on assessing higher education. Wherever women’s colleges show an advantage, it’s a good thing, he said.

“I get jazzed about, ‘Hey, we’ve got columns that are taller than anybody else’s.’ ”

Category: Academics, Liberal Studies, Women and Gender Studies