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It’s a Woman’s World (at least at these colleges)

The six women’s colleges in Massachusetts continue to innovate academically and financially to appeal to college-bound women.

Historically, Massachusetts has been home to some of the most vibrant, viable and prestigious educational institutions for women in the country. That number has decreased over time as schools such as Lesley University, Regis College and Wheaton College, among others, have gone coed. In 1999, Radcliffe College officially merged with Harvard University.

Susan Lennon, president of the Women’s College Coalition, says too often the conversations focus on the number of women’s colleges today versus 40 years ago rather than on the education and advancement of women and girls.

“We have to make the education and advancement of women and girls matter in this society,” says Lennon. “For me, in terms of women’s colleges today, it really is about the contemporary interpretation of founding mission.”

Currently there are more than 50 women’s colleges in the United States and six of them are located in Massachusetts: Bay Path, Pine Manor, Mount Holyoke, Simmons, Smith and Wellesley. Only Pennsylvania tops that number with seven, according to the Women’s College Coalition Web site.

In addition to their founding missions to educate women, these colleges share many characteristics. They often have a liberal arts focus, small class sizes, diverse student bodies and loyal alumnae. The “Comparative Alumnae Research Study” shows that women’s college alumnae are more likely than public university flagship alumnae to graduate in four years or less; more likely to earn a graduate degree; and less likely to transfer to another college or university. And then there are those things that aren’t as quantifiable.

Dr. Karima Robinson, a 1993 graduate of Wellesley College and an assistant professor in drama studies at State University of New York- Purchase, says the women’s college experience gave her the confidence to travel all over the world alone as a Watson fellow. “I was completely fearless about traveling alone as a young single woman,” says the Boston native. Even now, says Robinson, regardless of the circumstances, she always feels confident that ultimately “I will land on my feet.”

Women’s college officials say that often their students come with a fairly high level of self-confidence, and most are mature beyond their years. “They understand that for four years they will have the benefit of an institution that is geared toward them and cares about how women learn,” says Jane Brown, vice president for enrollment and college relations at Mount Holyoke College.

The women’s colleges featured in these pages are as distinct and diverse as their respective student populations. Providing a range of degrees from the associate to the doctorate, Massachusetts’ women’s colleges have had to be innovative academically and financially to adapt and remain competitive in efforts to appeal to today’s collegebound women. Read on to see just how they are doing it.

Cultivating Women Leaders

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, White House Social Secretary Desirée Rogers, the first African-American to serve in that capacity, and President Barack Obama’s personal secretary, Katie Johnson, all share Wellesley as an alma mater. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Mona Sutphen is a graduate of Mount Holyoke. Both colleges are Massachusetts members of the Seven Sisters, a consortium of East Coast liberal arts colleges for women that were established to be the female equivalent of the once predominantly male Ivy League. The Seven Sisters originated in 1915, with Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley colleges as members.

The three Seven Sister colleges in Massachusetts, including Smith, are among the most highly selective liberal arts colleges in the country, and each comes with a nearly $50,000-a-year price tag for tuition and room and board. Mount Holyoke and Wellesley almost exclusively offer baccalaureate degrees, while Smith offers a number of coed graduate programs. All three have continuing education programs, serving nontraditional- aged female college students. And despite being involved in collaborative recruitment efforts, they are quick to note that they are each quite distinctive in what they have to offer students.

Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Mass.: Mount Holyoke is the smallest and the oldest of the three Massachusetts Seven Sisters with approximately 2,100 students; 22 percent are domestic students of color. Coupled with an 18 percent international student population, Jane Brown, vice president for enrollment and college relations, says the college’s internationalism and diversity set it apart from its peer institutions. Yet, like many women’s colleges in the North, Brown says the obstacle Mount Holyoke still has to overcome is the image of being “White, small and in New England.” One step in that direction to increase its appeal and visibility is by enrolling community college transfer students, many of whom are nontraditional college-aged women with families, in its Frances Perkins Program. With the help of an $800,000 grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the college has been able to implement a community college transition program, and the funds allowed MHC representatives to visit more than 40 community colleges last year. Says Brown of the Perkins program, “We are so sure that this is what every college needs to be doing.”

Smith College, Northampton, Mass.: Smith is the largest of the commonwealth’s Seven Sisters with approximately 2,800 students. In 2008, the college, like Mount Holyoke, made the SAT an optional requirement. In recent years, the college has made national headlines for two reasons in particular. First, the college was the first and only to date of the Seven Sisters to appoint a Black president, Dr. Ruth Simmons, who served from 1994 to 2001 and is currently president of Brown University. And in 2000, the college established the Picker Engineering Program, the nation’s first and only accredited engineering program just for women. It has long been known that graduates of women’s colleges earn more undergraduate degrees in math, the life sciences and physical sciences than women that attend coed institutions. According to Smith, over the past four years, 118 students have graduated with engineering science degrees, and engineering has become one of the most popular majors at the college.

Wellesley College, Wellesley, Mass.: Wellesley enrolls approximately 2,300 students. With its motto, “Non Ministrari sed Ministrare,” “Not to be ministered unto, but to minister,” Wellesley has a long history of producing women leaders. Students consistently have had some type of leadership experience, says Jennifer Desjarlais, dean of admissions. “They’ve demonstrated a real commitment to an organization or a cause that’s of interest and importance to them … They’ve already demonstrated a willingness to be part of something that’s transformative,” adds Desjarlais. Students can take advantage of cross-registration with schools including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Babson College, and an exchange program with 12 colleges, including historically Black Spelman College. Within Wellesley’s class of 2012 of approximately 580 students, 18 percent are women of color. Wellesley’s need-blind admissions policies allow it to admit students without regard to their ability to pay. With a $1.6 billion endowment, the college eliminated loans for its students from families with incomes under $60,000 and lowered loans by one-third for students from families with incomes under $100,000, effective with the 2008-09 academic year. A Variety of Approaches “The diversity among our members from an institution-to-institution perspective has to do with meeting the needs of the face of higher education today and tomorrow,” says Lennon of the Women’s College Coalition. And that’s just what Bay Path, Pine Manor and Simmons colleges are doing. Overall, their tuition plus room and board is slightly less expensive than other similar schools, totaling between $30,000 and $40,000 per year among the institutions. With their own unique histories and personalities, these three colleges each serve a somewhat different demographic within the population of college-bound women, but each tend to offer more career-focused degrees in addition to the liberal arts.

Bay Path College, Longmeadow, Mass.: The history of Bay Path is unique in that it’s one of only two women’s colleges in the country that started out coed and then became all women, although the college still admits men to its graduate and certificate programs. That shift occurred in the 1940s, when jobs were drying up after World War II, especially for women. The college then decided to shift its focus to the education of women. Julie Richardson, dean of enrollment management for traditional programs, says the college is “keenly focused on helping women get an edge in the job market.” Many of the college’s more popular majors center around the areas of law and criminal justice, including forensic studies and forensic psychology. Bay Path serves a diverse population as well, with approximately 25 percent of its undergraduates being women of color and 51 percent being aged 25 or older. Furthermore, two-thirds of its students are first-generation college students. While the majority of Bay Path’s 600 undergraduates live on campus, the college also has a Saturday College for nontraditional- aged women looking to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree.

Pine Manor College, Chestnut Hill, Mass.: Pine Manor does not shrink from its history of providing a liberal arts education primarily to the daughters of Massachusetts’ wealthy class when it was founded in 1911, but officials say their mission is now to break the cycle of poverty by educating young women. “We’re so mission driven, with our focus on diversity and access,” says Barry Ward, vice president of enrollment. “We’re taking students that would not get into some of the other women’s colleges.” Drawing largely on the student population in Massachusetts, the college’s student diversity is definitely a selling point, say officials. For fall 2008, Black students made up more than 30 percent of the enrollment, followed by Hispanic at 15.3 percent, and Asian at 5.1 percent. In addition, the school has an 8 percent international population. Pine Manor is the smallest of the six institutions with a student enrollment of approximately 450 and it considers itself to be one of the more affordable women’s colleges in the state with tuition and room and board totaling approximately $30,000 a year. PMC offers associate and bachelor’s degrees and in recent years introduced a master’s of fine arts in creative writing.

Simmons College, Boston: Catherine Capolupo, director of undergraduate admissions, describes a Simmons education as “professional preparation with the liberal arts. Not only can they think, they can do,” she says of the students. Capolupo says that its Boston location is just one appeal of the college, along with its five-year programs in which undergraduates can earn master’s degrees in areas such as teaching, communications management, and library science and information technology. Simmons also offers a combined bachelor’s/MBA program. The most popular majors include nursing, sociology, psychology and communications. With an enrollment of approximately 2,000 undergraduate women, the majority of which are from Massachusetts, Capolupo says the college has seen consistent enrollment growth. Asian, Black, Hispanic and American Indian students make up 23 percent of the undergraduate student population. Prospective Simmons students typically have a B/B+ average, high test scores and have challenged themselves academically, says Capolupo, adding that their students “tend to demonstrate leadership prior to coming here. They have developed a longterm commitment to something beyond academics.”

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