The Right Fit

The decision to close Sweet Briar does not negate the continued need for women's colleges, or their ability to thrive, writes Nancy Gray.

March 4, 2015
Hollins University

The viability of women’s colleges is one of those evergreen topics in higher education that has again come to the forefront with the announcement that Sweet Briar College will be closing at the end of this academic year. I am saddened to learn of this decision. But I am convinced, after 15 years of experience leading women’s colleges, that the closing of one college does not portend the fall of others. Hollins University and Sweet Briar have historically been very different colleges, each with its own unique set of challenges and opportunities. The real question is: Do women’s colleges still play an important role in higher education?

Informed by scientific research and our own experiences, we know that each person learns differently; the learning environment and how one “fits” are keys to individual success. For many students today, a women’s college provides distinctive opportunities and is the right fit. 

What do women’s colleges offer that is different than coeducational institutions? Women’s colleges help young women find their voices, learn how to “lean in,” and develop the confidence to push back against the challenges so many women face in the workplace and in life. They are places where women find the support and encouragement they need to take risks, push boundaries and succeed personally and professionally.

There are more obvious considerations as well. The tensions and expectations, biases and pressures found in the mix of male and female students on coeducational campuses are much less in evidence at women’s colleges. Research suggests, for example, that students at women’s colleges feel less pressure to engage in binge drinking and other negative behaviors associated with campus life. They often feel more empowered to set high expectations and work to achieve them in the absence of negative judgments by male peers. They also have higher participation rates in leadership positions and extracurricular activities and are less likely to make career decisions that steer them to female-dominated jobs.

This research is reinforced by the many accounts of both students and alumnae of women’s colleges about enhancing learning skills, building confidence and keeping the friendships made on campus well into their adult lives.

Further, many women’s colleges claim some of the most loyal, engaged and dedicated alumnae in the nation. At Hollins, we emphasize alumnae engagement in internship placement and career mentoring for students as we counter the old boys' network with our new women’s connections. Further, 11 percent of our entering students last year were referred by alumnae, and we are well on our way to reaching our goal of 300 alumnae-referred students in this academic year. Women’s college alumnae are incredible resources and many of them are ready, willing and able to help today’s students succeed in a world where women’s parity has not yet been achieved.

From large research institutions to small liberal arts colleges, private universities to state university systems, and community colleges to vocational schools, choice is the hallmark of our system of higher education. Each provides a meaningful opportunity for finding that crucial fit. 

At Hollins and other women’s colleges across the country, we are providing an important option for young women at a time when more and more of them are looking for the best educational environment in which to prepare for a workplace where women are still not paid as well as men, where they are not represented as equally and where, still too often, they are treated as sexual objects. Thus, I am certain women’s colleges still have a vital role to play in educating and inspiring tomorrow’s leaders. And Hollins, with a strong endowment, no debt, a growing applicant pool, a highly credentialed faculty and an incredibly loyal alumnae body, is well positioned to provide such an education for many more years to come.


Nancy Gray is the president of Hollins University in Virginia.


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