Women’s colleges have some new material for their viewbooks, and it comes courtesy of Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research.
A center report, the full version of which will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of College Student Development, finds that students at women’s colleges report having more engaging and challenging academic experiences than do their female counterparts at traditional liberal arts colleges.
The study, "Women Students at Coeducational and Women's Colleges: How Do Their Experiences Compare?" looks at the frequency with which students said they took part in what the report calls "empirically derived good educational practices." Those include, but aren't limited to, working in peer groups, participating in class discussions and conversing outside of class with faculty members.
Data used in the study came from the annual National Survey of Student Engagement, which asks first-year students and seniors to evaluate their level of academic engagement. The center worked with a sample of 42,100 students at 290 four-year colleges. More than one-tenth of respondents were women’s college attendees. They represented 26 institutions -- although the report notes that many highly selective institutions didn't participate in the voluntary survey.
Researchers have long pointed to differences in the experiences of men and women in college, and sometimes refer to a "chilly climate" in academe for female students, particularly in math and science fields. Jillian L. Kinzie, associate director of the Center for Postsecondary Research, said the study shows that "there are certain things going on in women's colleges that seem to positively influence student participation."
Kinzie said far more students at women's colleges reported having regular interaction with faculty members than those at the other four-year institutions. The former group reported with greater frequency that their colleges helped them learn more about themselves, hone their quantitative analysis skills and develop a desire to help their communities.
More faculty mentors are available at women's colleges, and more student leadership positions seem to be available to students, according to the report.
“There’s an ethos created [at women's colleges] where women are taught, 'this is what you are supposed to do,' " Kinzie said. "You are supposed to speak up in class, supposed to do well in math, supposed to take advantage of educational opportunities.”
The study shows that students at both women's and other liberal arts colleges did not differ as far as their perceptions of the overall campus environment. Seniors at women's colleges perceived a lower level of interpersonal support than did their counterparts, although first-year students at women's colleges perceived greater support compared with their liberal arts peers.
Within women's colleges, white female students reported having significantly more interpersonal and academic support than did black students.
Contrary to the findings of Indiana University professor George D. Kuh that students who transfer into four-year colleges are less engaged than those who began at the institution, the center study found that students who transfer into women's colleges were "as engaged as those who started."
“The study validates what we have known for many years,” said Susan E. Lennon, executive director of the Women’s College Coalition. “If you believe that engagement is critical to a student’s success, this shows women’s colleges are a vital option.
“While women are a majority on campus today, it doesn’t mean they have equal experiences,” Lennon added. “College campuses remain a male-dominated culture. The import of this study is not only to validate women's colleges, but to help inform what happens in co-ed environments to keep women as engaged as possible.”
Kinzie said retention at women's colleges continues to be an issue. Financial pressures have led many women's colleges to admit men, and that has led to significant enrollment increases.
“I don’t think women’s colleges have told their story well enough," Kinzie said. "There's pretty limited research that shows what women gain."