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Are Women's Colleges Still Needed?

As an undergraduate at NYU, I was always curious about the intellectual sisterhood uptown, otherwise known as Barnard College students. The women's-only correlate to Columbia University, like many others of its ilk, has graduated several notable women and boasts a platinum academic track record.

As is the case with all "seven sisters," Barnard also has a mysterious air about it. Are its students drawn to the school because it's renowned academically and happens to be all female―or because it's a women's-only college that just happens to be excellent academically? Is it the balance and exact combination of the two that magnetizes others? If you ask graduates of such programs why they attended, you will hear an assortment of answers.

With only two percent of college graduates attending women's colleges, the decision to select a single sex institution has never been more intriguing. In the year 2010, when more college graduates are female than male―and when our workforce is more gender mixed than ever before―the question of relevance naturally emerges.

Certainly the number of national single sex colleges has dwindled, with a diminutive 60 female colleges operating today. Numerous schools have opted to become co-educational for the sheer sake of increased economic reach. Others have grappled with the decision, and as was the case with California's Mills College, converted from all female to co-educational only to later reverse their decision.

Doubters of women's colleges will inevitably ask how such schools can prepare women―in a female only environment―to navigate a coed world. The findings, from not one or two, but several studies, show that women's colleges actually do it quite well. According to a multi-year study by Hardwick Day, alumni of women's colleges are more likely than all other graduates to serve in a leadership role within their undergraduate college or university.

What's more, while women's college graduates make up only a small minority of the college-educated population, one-third of the women board members of the Fortune 1000 companies are women's college graduates, and women's college graduates are twice as likely to earn Ph.D.s., more often going on to study the sciences and attend medical school. Of Business Week's list of rising women stars in corporate America, 30 percent are women's college graduates and of women members of Congress, 20 percent attended women's colleges.

Even the biggest skeptics have to recognize a compelling case in these numbers. Colleges that have long catered to both genders are seeing the value in creating mini women's colleges internally. Just this spring, I presented a workshop to Duke University's Baldwin Scholars program, a 4-year initiative where 18 women are selected each year to be mentored, attend academic seminars, and are given the opportunity to live together as a group on campus. The scholars are also expected to partake in an internship, community service, and lectures that will develop leadership, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. As part of their membership, the women are expected to positively influence the culture for other women at Duke. Many other schools have created women-centric programming, among them UCLA, Northwestern, and Babson College.

I sat down with Tracey Rodriquez, a recent college graduate, who attended a large co-ed state university, a co-ed community college, as well as a women's college (Mills College). She contrasted several differences in her experience: "Mills was by far the most rigorous. The opportunities to get involved and assume leadership roles were frequent. By removing the competitive element between women, it freed up so much energy to focus on learning. With the help of fellow classmates, I produced some of the best projects of my life... Mills, I found, was very meritocratic." Rodriguez's experience highlights some clear benefits. There's also the effect of having more female role models, more faculty interaction, and more time to focus on academic endeavors.

But there's another less talked about advantage to these schools. Said Madeline Albright in a commencement speech at Wellesley, "...We sometimes misunderstand what leadership really is. We expect it to come from the outside. And so we wait and listen for the sound of some mighty voice coming out of a loud speaker. But real leadership comes from the quiet nudging of an inner voice. It comes from realizing...that the time has come to move beyond preparing to doing."

Albright scratches at what is perhaps the most important aspect of a single sex education: self agency. Social psychologists refer to this as one's "locus on control," or the extent to which we believe we can affect the forces around us. Girls are largely reared to believe that their locus of control sits outside of them (think "Someday your prince will come"), while boys are typically taught that their locus of control resides within them. Consider the commonalities in stories like Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White. You'll find that all of these stories depict women facing dire straits from which they can't save themselves. Men dash in, rescuing these women from harm, which is the key to the women's lives moving happily forward.

When one studies in an all female environment, there is less reliance on someone sailing in and fixing everything. Women are not waiting to be saved, believing that outer forces will help them, rather they are steering the ship, making cause and effect moves that actively sculpt their lives. Is it any wonder then that women's college graduates have developed a self reliance that serves them time and again in their careers?

Make no mistake women's colleges are far from perfect. There's the matter that they may not be involving enough of the very people who could help move the needle around gender issues: men. What's more, perhaps separating women from men while learning puts a band-aid on a larger, societal issue. There's also something of an image problem that may threaten the sustainability of these institutions.

Even so, women's colleges are not passé. They can play a role in increasing the dearth of women in top roles in corporate America, lessening the brain drain of technical knowledge getting outsourced offshore, and producing top scholars in areas where women are typically underrepresented. If research continues to tell us that graduates of women's colleges outperform their co-educated peers in speaking their minds, achieving career goals, and attaining more happiness, tell me, where would you want your daughter to go?

Read more from Selena Rezvani

Getting women's networks right

Even in the pink ghetto, women fall behind

From 'Pretty Little Liars' to future women leaders?

By Selena Rezvani

 |  September 3, 2010; 9:14 AM ET
Category:  Women in Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I'd love to see a similar article on the all-male schools. I think there are only a few (maybe one?) left of any size. I went to Rose-Hulman back when it was all male. I supported it going co-ed but felt that we were losing something special. It would be fun to hear about those schools that are or recently were all-male.

Posted by: bobtom222 | September 7, 2010 11:09 AM
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"They can play a role in increasing the dearth of women in top roles in corporate America"

Wouldn't this be what you'd like women's colleges NOT to do?
Who edited this?

Posted by: rockfish71 | September 6, 2010 2:32 PM
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Cogscientist- Your portrayal of graduates from elite women's colleges as having attained that accomplishment simply by virtue of being part of an economically advantaged group is hugely inaccurate. While these schools are expensive, you will find that they are in fact quite diverse, with most of the students receiving some type of financial aid. This is no longer the 1960s where money determined what school one could attend. The Seven Sisters have made concerted efforts to attract a diverse student body and to ensure that qualified women can attend regardless of economic status. To simply dismiss the accomplishments of these enormously talented women by claiming they are simply part of an "economic elite" is to ignore the reality that these schools enroll women from all economic background who then go on to make their mark on the world. Let's give credit where credit is due. The Seven Sisters are certainly doing something right.

As someone who attend both a co-ed school and a Seven Sisters college, I can attest that although the academics were considered comparable, the Seven Sisters students studied harder and did not take their education for granted. They were certainly more motivated. Clearly, single sex education still has a place in society, as any of the numerous alums in the boardroom and in high-ranking government positions can attest.

Posted by: smithie2 | September 6, 2010 2:26 PM
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I'm a graduate of a private women's college in Virginia, Hollins University. My Hollins professors were incredibly supportive of my chosen career, law, and I had great internship opportunities there, as well a fantastic academic scholarship. I went on to earn my J.D. at a top-tier law school.

My family was struggling financially before I entered Hollins - my father just having passed away - but the school made it work, and I had an on-campus job all four years. My mother is also a Hollins grad, has her M.A. in Applied History, and is a museum director. My grandmother attended a different women's college in the 1930s, and went on to get a masters degree from Columbia and a Ph.D. from Illinois - practically unheard-of in the 1940s. She was a librarian at the Library of Congress, and was her husband's boss! Even my great-great grandmother was a Hollins grad - in the 1850s! I come from a long line of fiercely independent women, women who are the backbone of our family and who credit their success, in part, to their education.

The statistics cited in the article about women's college grads are so important - and it's not just the "socio-economic background" of the families that led to these women's accomplishments. Many of my classmates at Hollins came from very "modest" backgrounds, and have gone on to achieve so much in life - they have founded charities, served in the Peace Corps, served in the diplomatic corps, gone to law school and medical school. Hollins has four Pulitzer Prize-winning alums, and many more who have achieved so much in their lives, both personally and professionally.

I have a daughter, and I hope that in 12 years' time, when she is considering colleges, that she falls in love with an institution like Hollins, one that is a supportive community of academic professionals and bright students who will inspire her for the rest of her life.

Posted by: plawrimore1 | September 5, 2010 6:26 PM
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America is awash in estrogen. From high-brow private women colleges to polycarbonate:
Baby bottles, microwave ovenware, eating utensils, plastic coating for metal cans.

BAD: Made with biphenyl-A, a chemical invented in the 1930s in search for synthetic estrogens. A hormone disruptor. Simulates the action of estrogen when tested in human breast cancer studies. Can leach into food as product ages.

We have predominately women teachers from K-12.

Is hormonal imbalance creating more male teenagers with breasts, while female teenagers are getting more hairy?

Cosmetic and aesthetic physician Dr Alice Prethima said she is seeing many cases of gynecomastia (enlargement of breasts in males) in her clinic.

But, she is also seeing teenage girls coming in because they have too much hair all over their body.

Posted by: alance | September 5, 2010 3:10 PM
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Those who promote women's colleges have rarely been careful about the claims that they make. As a government official at the National Institute of Education circa 1980, I was told that the graduates of women's colleges were much more likely to be listed in Who's Who. But that claim did not differentiate those who were listed for what they had accomplished from those who were listed because of their family connections. Nor did it take into account the socio-economic origins of the students. These colleges have always been expensive private schools and the women who attended them a very advantaged group, especially because families were less likely to invest in the education of daughters than the education of sons (see the Project Talent study done during the 1960's). Those promoters/lobbyists listed Radcliffe College among the 7 sisters, but Radcliffe was never truly a separate college. It never had a faculty of its own. The last separate class for women was held sometime during WWII. By the 1960's when I was a Radcliffe student, I viewed Radcliffe as an administrative device by which Harvard discriminated against women in admissions (1 to 4 quota), financial aid (almost none for women, quite generous for men), housing (women paid more for inferior housing), and football tickets (women got tickets only to unpopular sports). The median family income of Radcliffe students was twice as high as that of Harvard students and remained so for many years afterward. No doubt the same applies to the other 7 sisters and similar schools.
Undoubtedly the highly able, affluent women who attended and now attend these schools would have done well wherever they went to college.

Posted by: cogscientist | September 5, 2010 12:38 PM
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I graduated from a women's college in 1971, after having attended an all-girls high school. It was a great fit for me. After earning a science degree, I went on to get my Ph.D. and now run a research lab. I am grateful for the education I received and for the encouragement to pursue a research career at a time when there were many fewer women in science. While my school is now coed, I still see a place for women's colleges and I encouraged my own daughter to seriously consider these schools as real options.

Posted by: kccd | September 5, 2010 8:38 AM
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Can anyone speak to the legal issues here? Could a women's college or men's college legally refuse to admit a candidate because of their sex? I do know of one case, 1982's Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan, in which the Supreme Court ruled that exclusion of men from enrollment in MUW's nursing school violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. As a result MUW revised its admissions policy and today 15% of its students are male. Does this ruling apply to private colleges?

Posted by: jack512 | September 4, 2010 10:25 PM
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My daughter went to Mount Holyoke, the "eldest" of the seven sisters - and the only one who actively recruited her. While quite attractive, she is a very serious student. Virtually everyone accepted to Holyoke was an "A" student in high school, they seek something different. Apparently they found it in her. She found a supportive environment, with professors (men and women) who were committed to women's higher education. And she attended classes with men, since Mt Holyoke is a member of a consortium of colleges/universities where students can take courses at any member of the consortium. But on weekends or in the evening she knew she could always go "home" to an environment devoid of social pressures to have men around - in their dorm rooms. She could actually study. And study she did! And everyone asks me how she accomplished so much in so very few years. And the answer is simply, she was able to concentrate.

Posted by: kenarmy | September 4, 2010 8:04 PM
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As a proud women's college graduate, I strongly support the continuance of women's colleges - they are a wonderful option to have. Similarly, more men's colleges would be a good option for the men.

Like DCESCAPEE, I spent a semester during my junior year with a co-ed university. I studied abroad with this particular co-ed university, and the culture shock of studying with its students and other students from other co-ed universities and colleges was far greater than the culture shock of living in a foreign country - I really missed the academic rigor to which I had become accustomed at my women's college, and I was surprised to observe women from other top-notch universities and colleges taking a rather back-of-the-classroom seat in the co-ed classroom.

This was over a decade ago, but I've seen the same thing happen at the universities at which I've attended graduate school.

Posted by: vitruvia | September 4, 2010 7:33 PM
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This is a sore subject with me. My alma mater, Randolph-Macon Woman's College, no longer exists. It went coed, ostensibly due to poor financial management, and the new name, Randolph College, wiped out the gender reference -- when you'd think a woman's college dating back to 1892 might have kept that designation. To add insult to injury, prestigious items in R-MWC's world-class art collection were sold, according to some reports, to fund a men's sports program.

Posted by: wmpowellfan | September 4, 2010 12:38 PM
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My daughter is this very week joining the Barnard ranks as a freshman (?freshwoman?). She chose Barnard after looking at a myriad of colleges, and visiting 25 campuses ... including NYU, Harvard, Wellesley, BU, Rice, UTexasAustin, Duke, Pomona, Northwestern, UChicago and several other highly selective programs. She chose Barnard because it offered excellent academics with a supportive faculty, which was not the case at many other places. The fact that it was all female was not the prime lure. It is a misconception that her classes will be all female, since as part of Columbia University, she can cross enroll at coed classes there and males can likewise take classes at Barnard. She can join any club at Columbia, work on their publications, play sports in their league. She liked the fact that she will receive an Ivy League education within a smaller, more nurturing environment. She also liked the fact that she will have all of New York City at her doorstep. I ask you, what other school offers this?
I was reluctant at first when she declared her intent to apply early decision there. It's not a rah-rah college, I whined (no football there!). It's not big enough, I implored. It's not co-ed, I squeaked. But she knew her mind, and I must say after having visited there several times: SHE WAS RIGHT. Barnard will allow her to major in 'fearlesss' as they like to say there. She has already met strong women from all over the world. The students there are amazing, engaged, clever people. Enough already about lesbians and weak women who will graduate without the skills needed to survive in a coed, male-dominated society. Please, before you speak such nonsense, make a visit to the campus of a highly selective women's college...scrutinize their alum roster...and take a class or two there (IF you can even get accepted based on your grades and scores). Then you will realize that the caliber of student a school like Barnard produces is indeed fearless. And fierce.

Posted by: leptismagna | September 4, 2010 12:30 PM
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If I were a lesbian, an all-women's college would be a paradise on earth.

Posted by: kenk3 | September 4, 2010 8:32 AM
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"I don't think they're needed anymore than all black colleges. But to each his own. If people want to separate themselves by gender or race, then so be it. However, when these people get into the work force, they'll all have to work together, anyway."

No doubt this post was made by a white male. MCLS1442 is precisely one of the reasons why women's colleges are still needed. Also, of course we all have to work together at some point someday. Thanks for that penetrating glimpse into the obvious, MCLS1442. That isn't the point. The point is that women's colleges prepare young women far better for that eventuality than their co-educational counterparts. And it's a college not a nunnery. There is still plenty of interaction with males off campus, during the summer, and in the classroom. We had men from nearby schools like MIT and Harvard taking classes at Wellesley all the time. And Wellesley women take loads of classes there, esp at MIT.

Finally, to the author, just an FYI - alums of women's colleges are not called alumni. We are alumnae.

I went to Wellesley and got the best education I could ever have hoped for, both socially as well as within the classroom. I've never been surrounded by smarter more interesting people from all over the world in my life. The Seven Sister schools (now really the Five Sisters) are such special places to spend four years. And their specialness can't be explained. It has to be experienced. And the network is phenomenal. I would take a bullet for Wellesley and anytime I get an email from a Wellesey alum looking for a job or career advice, I always respond - and happily. I love hearing from Wellesley alumnae and helping them. It's a part of the Wellesley culture and that kind of camaraderie, sisterhood, and career network just doesn't exist at co-ed schools.

I spent time at Bowdoin College my junior year just to see what a co-ed school was like. I like men and I like parties but I left Bowdoin early to come back to Wellesley. I was supposed to spend a full year there but opted to spend only a semester instead. The academics were very strong but the environment on campus was so incredibly skewed toward the men in so many ways. Made me even more appreciative of what I had at Wellesley.

Posted by: Fordo89 | September 3, 2010 7:10 PM
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Where is the copy editor?

Posted by: mini2 | September 3, 2010 4:37 PM
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Yes, of course, women's colleges are still needed. What is also needed but unacknowledged is men's colleges. My son is attending (his own choice) one of the last 3 men's colleges. The advantage? Work hard during the week with sport and academics so that weekend socializing with the nearby women's colleges is an event to look forward to.
In it's bid to equalize the women's movement did some injustices to men - the drive to eradicate men's colleges was one.

Posted by: Lynne5 | September 3, 2010 3:47 PM
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I'm a proud and grateful alumna of Douglass College, the women's college within Rutgers University. I loved the environment because it was so clear that we were there for an education, not for a party. We took our work seriously and used the opportunities available to us to expand our horizons in immeasurable ways. And we were intellectually brutal with one another - I have yet to work in a more challenging environment. There was no tolerance for sloppy thought, even after a beer. The single-gender campus and classrooms did not serve to isolate us from "reality" but did offer an incubator for thinkers, leaders and activists.
I was a returning student, older than my colleagues and lacking a connection to ordinary campus life. The women's college made use of my experience and allowed me to bloom into a scholar.

What shocked me when I went to graduate school was not the pervasive sexism in the environment or the general disdain for work focused on women - it was the degree to which social life overrode the work itself in sorting achievers from leavers.

Since that time, most of my professional life has been in mixed/mostly male environments. Education at a women's college didn't shelter or deprive me of experience in that milieu; rather,it provided me a powerful set of tools with which to navigate. I hope we continue to support the kinds of schools - co-ed or not - that provide a welcoming and supportive environment for people doing serious intellectual work.

Posted by: dcescapee | September 3, 2010 2:53 PM
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"I don't think they're needed anymore than all black colleges."

Yes, there are Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but their populations are not 100% black. They have white, hispanic and asian students as well. Just because a university doesn't have a majority white population doesn't mean that students who choose to attend those schools are trying to separate themselves from anyone. Do some research before making an ignorant post.

Posted by: LillyP | September 3, 2010 2:09 PM
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Trinity in Washington has enrolled more than 1000 women this fall in our historic women's college, the largest enrollment ever, and a 140% increase in enrollment in the women's college since the Year 2000. We are a diversified university today with coeducational units and a total enrollment of more than 2,300, but the stunning growth in the women's college is evidence that such schools still offer a powerful and compelling program that is of great benefit to many women. The majority of our students today are African American and Latina, and it's very important to note that while women's colleges once served a somewhat narrow tranche of mostly affluent white women (except for the historically Black Spelman and Bennett), today's women's colleges like Trinity are leaders in welcoming new populations of women of color, many from low income backgrounds, and women of all ages who stopped out of school to raise families. Trinity's experience is similar to what's going on at Mills, Chatham, Agnes Scott, New Rochelle, the College of Notre Dame of Maryland and many other historic women's colleges that are now larger diversified universities with women's colleges still at the core. For more see www.trinitydc.edu as well as www.womenscolleges.org

Posted by: TrinityPresident | September 3, 2010 1:29 PM
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Selecting a university is a choice. Some have all women, some are HBCUs (no such thing as all black colleges, unless you're living in the early 20th century, when there were all white colleges, hence the reason for HBCUs.)

Americans "seem" to pride themselves on choice and democracy. Now you have fools who want to remove schools with unique histories so they can do what? Build another town center, or Wal-Mart, or luxury condominium community.... GOD HELP US ALL!!!!!

Posted by: ze111ze | September 3, 2010 1:26 PM
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I think women's colleges still exist because writers need to fill space, and every year or two can churn out an article asking whether women's colleges have outlived their usefulness.

Seriously, I graduated from a Seven Sisters school in the late 80s. Had a great time, learned a lot, made awesome friends. It shaped me in countless ways. Would I attend if 18 today? Probably not, or only if I had other reasons. If they gave me scholarship money, for instance, and if I wanted to live in a small scenic New England town, in a school with quirky traditions and a strong network. If it were the best school I got into. In fact, these are all the reasons I went there in the 80s.

Now however, I would have to weigh that against a lesbian and transgender scene run amok. It was kinda crazy then (and I was/am very gay friendly). Today it is bizarroland.

Leadership is a two edged sword. It can damage young lives as well as shape them productively. A gang-leader is still a leader, after all.

Single sex schools, like other schools defined by who they welcome (and exclude) can offer a respite from the larger society and provide temporary shelter to those who feel harmed or buffeted by the mainstream. But if the mainstream no longer discriminates (against women or gays or minorities) then the shelter these schools provide turns them instead into breeding grounds for the cultivation of habits and mindsets that will actually render graduates MORE of a target and LESS capable of coping in the mainstream world. It is the ultimate paradox of such schools.

Forgive me, but I think THAT is the main question here. Not whatever airy fairy question was at the heart of this innocuous bit of fluff.

Posted by: Clio1 | September 3, 2010 1:22 PM
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I attended a small, women-only liberal arts college for the curriculum and the location rather than because it excluded males (there was an all-men's college down the road, so there was NEVER a lack of guys.) Ultimately it was the size of the school was what made me love it. We averaged about 300 students. I graduated with 65 women, and knew every single one of them. Although the school is long gone, we have an active alumni group.

Posted by: kbockl | September 3, 2010 12:46 PM
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I don't think they're needed anymore than all black colleges. But to each his own. If people want to separate themselves by gender or race, then so be it. However, when these people get into the work force, they'll all have to work together, anyway.

Posted by: mcls1442 | September 3, 2010 12:31 PM
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I would classify this article as 'micro-analysis' . . . . probably more appropriately placed in the science section of the newspaper.


Posted by: rmkraus | September 3, 2010 11:51 AM
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My god, without womens' colleges, we wouldn't have had that most wonderful scene in Animal House when the boys dated Fawn Libowitz's friends from Emily Dickenson College.

Posted by: johng1 | September 3, 2010 11:44 AM
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Selena, I have a question about some of the findings. First, almost all women-only colleges are small liberal arts schools. When you compare them against other schools, are you comparing them against everyone, big state schools included, or are you comparing them to similar schools that are co-ed.

For instance, it is fair to compare women attending Smith with those attending Amherst. But probably not fair to compare it against women in a large state school like U Mass, which is also very good but offers a very different dynamic for men and women than do small private liberal-arts schools.

Second, if women are the majority of college grads now and we have an increasing mixed workforce, either these institutions have outlived their purpose, or if they offer something better, maybe we should explore the idea of men-only colleges to help the gender that is currently falling behind educationally.

Thank you for your very interesting essay.

Posted by: cbl-pdx | September 3, 2010 11:24 AM
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