‘Unicorns’ in Uncertain Times

At a time when many women’s colleges are struggling to remain viable—and, some might argue, relevant—the colleges’ leaders and students have no doubt the institutions are needed.

November 30, 2022
Five Trinity students, all women of color. One is wearing a hijab.
“We are something of a unicorn, being still primarily a women’s college,” Trinity president Patricia McGuire said.
(Trinty Washington U)

When Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, was speaking at a conference on Catholic higher education last month, she referred to the university, a women’s institution in Washington, D.C., in a way that could also describe many women’s colleges across the country.

“In fact, we are something of a unicorn, being still primarily a women’s college,” she said.

McGuire was referring to the many changes the university, which was founded as a liberal arts college for women 125 years ago, has undergone in recent decades. She noted that it is now a predominantly Black institution as well as a federally designated Hispanic-serving institution that serves high numbers of students from low-income backgrounds. When she became president of Trinity in 1989, the university’s future seemed dire. Six presidents had come and gone in the previous eight years, and enrollment had plummeted from 900 to 300. University trustees told her to “fix it or close it.”

Enrollment at Trinity now stands at 1,800, and even though the institution started admitting men in 2004, as have other women’s colleges, 95 percent of its students are women. (Trinity’s College of Arts & Sciences, the institution’s largest program, remains all women.) McGuire made clear in her speech that no one is questioning the institution’s “relevance and vigor” today.

That’s not the case across the board, however. As women’s colleges struggle with declining enrollment, closures and mergers, questions and discussions about their relevancy have grown. Leaders of those colleges insist that they are still relevant—and needed. And the students that attend these colleges agree.

Attending a “college that is strictly centered and focused on women—it’s such an empowering moment, because we’re really moving through this world that is dominated by male presence,” said Lorraine Oyetubo, who attended Newman University, a coed Catholic institution in Pennsylvania, before transferring to Trinity. “So now here you are, in this place where you’re feeling so free and open to learn because you’re in a safe space.”

Many women’s colleges have shifted their recruiting practices to grow their enrollments and, like Trinity, now target low-income and first-generation college students and students of color—who are a growing demographic among college-age American students. The colleges are also appealing to students with children, commonly referred to as student parents, such as Oyetubo. Other institutions, including Trinity, are also welcoming undocumented students and offering scholarships to those noncitizens who are eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or Temporary Protected Status, while other colleges have created new academic programs focused on workforce development and labor market needs such as health sciences.

Today, 48 percent of students at women’s colleges are Pell Grant recipients, and 50 percent are students of color, according to the Women’s College Coalition, which works to promote academic success for women at 33 colleges in the U.S. and Canada.

“Nearly a third of our institutions are federally designated minority-serving institutions,” said Ann McElaney-Johnson, president of Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles and chair of the Women’s College Coalition. “We really pay attention to that, because we want to make sure that we are serving students who wouldn’t have ready access, and so that’s a real high priority across all of our institutions.”

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Other than a handful of selective women’s colleges, the institutions over all have limited budgets and modest endowments. At Trinity, administrators are focused on appealing to students focused on their future employment prospects, who want degrees that will directly lead to jobs.

“Staying a women’s college, focusing on the needs of local women in D.C. and developing programs that really lead to good jobs, well-paying jobs and lifelong careers were part of the keys to our success,” McGuire said in an interview.

Andrea Chavez, a senior at Trinity and president of Ladies F.I.R.S.T., a club for women studying STEM fields, met and spoke with several students when she toured the campus during her senior year of high school. She said she felt welcomed when she learned that there were undocumented immigrants enrolled there.

“For me, it was the fact that I wanted to go to a college that was very welcoming of who I am, because I am undocumented, and I really wanted to be in a place that supported me and supported our community,” she said.

Chavez said Trinity is a great institution for building close relationships with professors because of the small class sizes and the close-knit culture of the campus.

“They really do a great job of listening to students and making sure that us students feel like our voices are being heard,” said Chavez.

She noted that whenever she reaches out to McGuire, she usually receives a response the same day. She’s doubtful she could reach a faculty member that quickly, much less the president, at a larger university.

“At a larger institution, there are so many people and it feels like, ‘Oh, why would my school even listen to me when there are 20,000 other students there?’” Chavez said.

Oyetubo is president of the new Student Parent Alliance at Trinity, which advocates for student parents and helps them find financial supports and other resources such as childcare. She said university administrators have created a supportive environment for student parents like her and are considering “even more resources that they can provide.” For example, a new family-friendly study space in the campus library is due to open for the spring semester and will offer a study area, computers and more for student parents and their children. Student parent–focused questions were also added to the university’s academic adviser intake survey, so that parents are clearly identified and data are gathered about them, allowing the university to direct focused emails, outreach and financial resources directly to them.

“It’s critically important for our advisers, student services team, financial services staff and other staff to know who our student parents are,” said Ann Pauley, vice president for institutional advancement and media relations. “They don’t always self-identify, so adding these questions helps us document this information. When we know if someone is a student parent, we can be sure to offer her the resources she needs.”

Oyetubo participates in Generation Hope, a fellowship program at Trinity that is designed to assist student parents. She created the Student Parent Alliance as part of the program’s requirement that fellows work on an advocacy project.

“I want it to be a space for parents for whatever they need, so they can safely and easily complete their education,” she said of the organization. “They can come here and get the resources that they need.”

The resources and support, academic and financial, offered at women’s college appear to be paying off.

According to the Women’s College Coalition, more women’s college students graduate in four years or less than at coed institutions. A large portion of first-year, full-time students—94 percent—receive some form of financial aid, and 48 percent are eligible for Pell Grants. The average annual institutional aid provided by women’s colleges is more than $15,000. What’s more, many alumnae of women’s colleges say the student-centered academic environment, the small classes and the emphasis on developing leadership skills, prepared them well for first jobs and career advancement, according to the coalition.

“The challenge for us within our own mission is how do we support those students financially so that they can continue enrolling and continue to get the degree,” McElaney-Johnson said. “Because the last thing you want is the students to have to step away because of financial concerns, so we do work really hard on that.”

McElaney-Johnson is pleased that U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona plans on touring women’s colleges across the nation next year and is “very interested in the fact that women’s colleges are serving so many underrepresented populations in higher education.”

Mary Dana Hinton, president of Hollins University, said women’s colleges can help a whole new generation of young women succeed professionally by focusing on first-generation and low-income students.

“I think women’s colleges are uniquely poised to serve those students with excellence and distinction,” she said. “In this moment when there are fewer women’s colleges, every one of us who remained is called to spread the word of what we do even more and to invite more and more women into our community.”

Hollins, a 181-year-old university located in Roanoke, Va., is one of only two women’s colleges remaining in the state. Hinton noted that the institution has gone through many “crucible moments.”

“What we’ve done and what our other 30-plus women’s colleges have done is we’ve learned how to be responsive to the moment while at the same time being faithful to our mission,” she said.

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Safia Abdulahi

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