Guide to the Best Women's Colleges

by Deena Shanker

Be sure to also read VITAMIN W's Big List of Women's College Alumnae.

Less than 1% of women in the U.S. attend women's colleges today. Despite this small figure, women’s colleges are thriving. They have produced icons like Hillary Rodham Clinton, Martha Stewart, and Alice Walker. In the past five years alone, we’ve seen the President of the United States give a graduation speech at Barnard College in New York, Wellesley College graduate Hillary Rodham Clinton become the most popular politician in the country, and Sweet Briar College alumna Leah Busque found the successful online and mobile marketplace TaskRabbit.

The benefits of going to a women’s college are also backed up by data. A 2008 study by education consultancy group Hardwick Day found women’s college graduates are better prepared than their coed counterparts in areas like leadership and analytical thinking. A list of firsts curated by the Women's College Coalition shows that graduates of women's colleges can count over 70 firsts, from the first African-American woman judge to the first woman president of a commercial airline to the first female vice presidential candidate.

We’ve chosen to feature some of the most prominent women’s colleges. They share some key characteristics, including a commitment to service, leadership, and academic excellence. Each offers its own unique brand of education to its students and has a strong network of successful women who stick together and extend a hand to those who follow.

Barnard campus

Barnard College: New York, New York

Although Barnard already had a name, when President Obama gave the May 2012 commencement speech at the school the Columbia women’s college really took the national stage. The college also runs the innovative Athena Film Festival, which screens feature films, shorts, and documentaries that highlight women’s leadership.

With events all over the world -- from a New York City lecture on the changing Arctic to a meet-and-greet with the school's dean of college relations, Dorothy Denburg, in Tel Aviv -- Barnard has prided itself on keeping its alumnae connected to each other and the campus. One of the ways it achieves this is by offering unlimited lifetime career counseling. And for those who don’t want to leave their computers, alumnae can check out the My Life Is Barnard Twitter account. The account cheekily sums up life in Morningside Heights in 140 characters or less, and is run by students but loved by alumnae as well.

·      2,390 students

·      $215.5 million endowment

·      7-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio

·      94% freshmen retention rate

·      Alumnae network includes 31,000 living alumnae

·      Notable alumnae: Pioneering comedienne Joan Rivers; business titan and professional homemaker Martha Stewart; groundbreaking cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead.

brenau

Brenau University: Gainesville, Georgia

When H.J. Pearce purchased the Georgia Baptist Female Seminary in 1878, he renamed it Brenau as a blend of the German word brennen, “to burn,” and the Latin aurum, “gold,” giving the school the motto “As Gold Refined by Fire.” Offering online classes (aka “distance learning”) since 1998, Brenau offers its “gold” even to those students who can’t make it to Gainesville.

Brenau’s alumnae stay engaged through a number of programs, including an annual luncheon, spring tea, and the 24 Karat Club for graduates of fifty or more years.

·      1,800 undergraduate students

·      $32 million endowment

·      9-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio

·      70.8% freshmen retention rate

·      Alumnae network includes 7,200 living alumnae and a giving rate of 20%

·      Notable alumnae: Danita Emma, dance teacher for National Opera & Ballet and director of Syracuse University dance intensive.

Brescia"

Brescia University College: London, Ontario, Canada

As Canada’s only women’s college, Brescia University Canada might have its roots in Catholicism, but in its current form it is “open to -- and embrace[s] -- women of all faiths.” Through its affiliation with Western University, the third largest university in the province, students have access to a range of classes and resources beyond what Brescia alone offers.

Brescia alumnae maintain a high level of engagement with the college post-graduation, often returning to speak at different events. At the school's career symposium, for example, alumnae from different industries offer a panel discussion to students, and through the Take the Lead program, alumnae return to campus to judge an annual high school public speaking contest.

·      960 full-time undergraduate students

·      $3 million endowment

·      14-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio

·      Alumnae network includes more than 5,000 living alumnae

·      Notable Alumnae: Margaret Chan, Director-General Elect of the World Health Organization

 

bryn mawr

Bryn Mawr College: Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

Located only ten miles outside of Philadelphia, the Bryn Mawr campus brings together the lush greenery of the suburbs with the classic charm of Collegiate Gothic architecture and now, with the student-led installation of the school’s first set of solar panels last November, the latest in environmentally-friendly energy technology. Through the required “Balch Seminars,” Bryn Mawr freshmen are introduced to cross-disciplinary analytical thought meant to provoke thoughtful, challenging discussions on topics ranging from current theories of race and ethnicity to classic Greek mythology. Bryn Mawr students also have access to courses at nearby Swarthmore and Haverford colleges.

Alumnae, meanwhile, continue to have access to Bryn Mawr resources -- and each other -- after graduation. Since 2011, the school has hosted 52 career-focused events, including networking receptions, webinars on Establishing a Network, and on-site programming. According to Wendy M. Greenfield, executive director of the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Association, “Bryn Mawr women go to extraordinary lengths to support one another socially and professionally through life's struggles and triumphs. The empowerment they feel as students in a challenging academic environment in which they are encouraged to express themselves boldly and develop their passion and a strong sense of identity, carries over to their adult lives.”

• 1,300 students

• $675 million endowment

• 8-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio

• 91.5% freshmen retention rate

• Alumnae network includes 23,000 living alumnae, 1,300 Key Alumnae Volunteers, and a 40% giving rate.

                                    • Notable alumnae: Katherine Hepburn, legendary screen actress; Emily Balch, recipient of 1946 Nobel Peace Prize.

cedarcrest

Cedar Crest College: Allentown, Pennsylvania

With fewer than 1,500 undergraduate students, Cedar Crest College prides itself on being a small private college where students can form strong, lasting mentor/protégé type relationships with their professors. In 2010 the school launched its Graduates of the Last Decade (GOLD) program to help new alumnae connect with each other, and in the fall of 2013 it will add an official NCAA-sanctioned swim team to its athletics program.

Cedar Crest also has the distinction of being one of the few colleges led by a Black female president and providing 98% of its incoming 2012-13 freshman class with some form of financial aid. Valerie Kreiser, director of student financial services says, “Cedar Crest College takes pride in providing first-generation college students and others with the financial aid they need to attend college. We will continue to do whatever we can to help as many students as we can to pursue a college education."

·      1,403 students

·      $20 million endowment

·      10-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio

·      75% freshmen retention rate

·      Alumnae network includes 14,000 living alumnae , with 400 available mentors, 65 class fundraisers, and 73 class correspondents.

·      Notable alumna: Jenny McGrath, former CEO of MTV networks

hollins

Hollins University: Roanoke, Virginia

Hollins University’s motto is “Women who are going places start at Hollins.” But with its picturesque, 475-acre campus, it’s unclear why anyone would want to leave. In addition to courses in everything from chemistry to gender and women’s studies, Hollins students can take courses at Hollins’ Batten Leadership Institute, where instructors encourage students to leave their comfort zones and explore their leadership potential. BLI executive director Abrina Schnurman-Crook says, “We think of it as a little tough love alongside our unwavering belief in a universal capacity for change and growth.”

Hollins is dedicated to helping its alumnae find their place in the world, and just held its first annual Career Connection Conference, considered to be a key component of its five-year alumnae engagement campaign “Connecting Liberal Arts Education and Experience to Achieve Results.” And alumnae seem to appreciate all the work Hollins does for them; its 2002-2010 fundraising campaign, the Campaign for Women Who Are Going Places, beat its $125 million goal, pulling in a total of $161.6 million for the school.

·      731 undergraduate students

·      $152 million endowment

·      10-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio

·      72.8% freshmen retention rate

·      Alumnae network includes 11,608 living alumnae and a giving rate of 27%

·      Notable alumnae: Carole Semple Thompson, aka the “First Lady of Golf”

mills

Mills College: Oakland, California

On a lush, 135-acre urban campus in San Francisco, Mills College offers young women a liberal arts education with a strong focus on the arts. The school’s art museum houses events for exhibit openings, discussions with the featured artists, and multimedia performances. Its distinguished alumnae include Beate Sirota Gordon, whose recent obituary in the New York Times tells the fascinating story of how Gordon, in an effort to find her parents in Japan, ended up writing the section of the Japanese Constitution guaranteeing full and equal rights to women.

The alumnae community stays connected through national and local events like film screenings, museum tours, and even cheese-making classes. Meanwhile, an active online community provides an open forum to tell personal stories, reconnect with old friends, and network professionally.

·      930 undergraduate students

·      $183 million endowment

·      10-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio

·      77.5% freshmen retention rate

·      Alumnae network includes 21,000living alumnae in over 60 countries

·      Other notable alumnae: Fanny Rouse Snell, the first woman lawyer in New York State; Liz Holzman, the Emmy Award-winning producer/director of Pinky and the Brain and Animaniacs

mtholyoke

Mount Holyoke College: South Hadley, Massachusetts

Celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, Mount Holyoke College is the oldest of the Seven Sisters colleges. As part of the Five College Consortium, students can choose from 48 departmental and interdisciplinary majors and enroll in classes and use the resources at nearby Amherst College, Smith College, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Hampshire College. Depending on their passions and interests, students can engage with the world at large through the Miller Worley Center for the Environment, the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, or the Weissman Center for Leadership.

Alumnae continue to have access to school resources as well. Through seven fellowships and an active career network, Mount Holyoke continues to help its alumnae find their footing in the real world after graduation. The school also recently debuted its new Mount Holyoke College Update, a monthly parenting e-newsletter to provide family-oriented news and information.

·      2,352 students

·      $617 million endowment

·      9-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio

·      91.2% freshmen retention rate

·      Alumnae network includes 36,000 living alumnae, 70 alumnae clubs in the U.S. and 22 internationally, as well as 2,000 active alumnae volunteers.

·      Notable alumnae: Emily Dickinson, beloved American poet; Olga Maria Sacasa, first woman to represent home country of Nicaragua in Olympic cycling.

scripps

Scripps College: Claremont, California

As one of the five Claremont Colleges (including Pomona, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, and Claremont McKenna), students at Scripps College get the best of both worlds: the cultivating, supportive environment of a small women’s college and the resources of four other highly-ranked schools. With a core program focusing on the theme of culture, knowledge, and representation, Scripps focuses on providing its students with an interdisciplinary humanities education. Scientists are not left out, though -- they can take classes with Claremont McKenna and Pitzer students at the W.M. Keck Science Department. What's more, Scripps faculty include accomplished biologists, chemists, and physicists. By graduation, 82% of Scripps students will have held at least one internship, making them extra competitive job candidates.

Emily Rankin, the school's director of alumnae relations and a 1997 graduate, notes the sense of service and strong accomplishments coming from the alumnae community. “Our alumnae are a stellar group of women who are committed to social justice,” she says. "They not only say they want to make the world a better place, but rather they go out and work to make it a more equitable world for everyone. Our alumnae go on to work for Teach for America and they establish non-profit organizations, such as Challah For Hunger, to help the disenfranchised throughout the world. Our alumnae are confident leaders in their respective fields who help to empower others to do well for their communities and the world.”

·      1,000 students

·      $270 million endowment

·      11-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio

·      93.5% freshmen retention rate

·      Alumnae network includes 7,000living alumnae, and more than 200 alumnae volunteers.

·      Notable alumnae: Gabrielle Giffords, former U.S. Congresswoman (D-Arizona); Johanna Greenberg, first person in a wheelchair to become a veterinarian; Tanya Cherry Tull, founder of Para Los Niños, Beyond Shelter, and A Community of Friends.

simmons

Simmons College: Boston, Massachusetts

With a sprawling urban campus in the heart of Boston, Simmons students get all the resources of a major city as well as all the comforts of campus life. The school’s Option for Personalized Educational Needs (OPEN) program allows undergraduates to custom design their majors with the help of faculty advisors. The Simmons School of Management, meanwhile, offers a pioneering MBA program specifically designed for women; in addition to standard courses on leadership and management, the program also teaches students about gender dynamics and how they create and impede leadership opportunities.

Leadership is certainly a part of the Simmons College ethos. As Pennsylvania Congresswoman Allyson Y. Schwartz, a Simmons alumna, told VITAMIN W, “When I was in school, it was a time of serious student activism on college campuses and more broadly, in civic affairs. For me, the opportunity to show leadership in a variety of ways was important for my own understanding of my skills and abilities. Female colleges set expectations for their students to be well educated, engaged in the college community, and well prepared for their careers. Simmons College encouraged me to achieve in academics and to set ambitious goals for my future.”

Nostalgic alumnae can take a look at the school’s online slideshow “Then and Now,” which shows that at Simmons, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

·      1,785 students

·      $148 million endowment

·      13-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio

·      81.2% freshmen retention rate

·      Alumnae network includes 20,000 living alumnae with approximately 1,500 – 2,000 active alumnae volunteers, and a giving rate of 18-20% participation.

·      Other notable alumnae: Gwen Ifill, journalist, television newscaster and author.

smith

Smith College: Northampton, Massachusetts

With a litany of impressive alumnae, including Sylvia Plath and Gloria Steinem, Smith College has long distinguished itself as one of the country’s best women’s colleges. Students can enroll in the Picker Engineering Program, wander through more than 10,000 plant species in the 12,000-square-foot Lyman Conservatory and Botanic Garden, or participate in programming at the Center for Work and Life (recently featured in the New York Times story, How to Attack the Gender Wage Gap? Speak Up, for “teach[ing] young assertive communication skills, through role-playing and workshops”). Students looking for even more options can try classes at the other schools in the Five College Consortium (Mt. Holyoke, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College).

Alumnae, meanwhile, also have access to Smith resources, with the school offering career-related services including webinars, workshops, and resume reviews.

·      2,750 students

·      $1.4 billion endowment

·      9-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio

·      91.5% freshmen retention rate

·      Alumnae network includes 47,000 living alumnae with 2,500 formal volunteers.

·      Notable alumnae: Sylvia Plath, groundbreaking feminist poet and writer; Gloria Steinem, women’s rights author and activist; Julia Child, American chef.

spelman

Spelman College: Atlanta, Georgia

Originally started as a girls’ high school, Spelman is the nation’s oldest Black women’s college. As part of the Atlanta University Center academic consortium, students have access to resources at Clark Atlanta University, Interdenominational Theological Center, Morehouse College, and the Morehouse School of Medicine. Spelman’s alumnae roster reads like a who’s who of our country’s most impressive African-American women, including Janet Bragg, the first black woman to obtain a commercial pilot license, Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and Kimberly B. Davis, who until last month was president of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, the bank’s philanthropic arm.

Davis, also a trustee at the college for four years, embodies a culture of service yjay she describes as “part of the DNA of the school,” as well as its history -- she has a family legacy there going all the way back to 1884. Her involvement as an alumna, though, largely stems from her post-graduation experience. She told VITAMIN W, “As I entered corporate life and moved throughout banking over the past 30 years and as I moved in more senior roles, I began to see some of the leadership challenges that women of color faced and thought there was a great opportunity for women’s colleges and specifically Spelman to play a greater role in helping women to become comfortable in their leadership as they moved into the corporate space.”

·      2,170 students

·      $327 million endowment

·      11-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio

·      87.8% freshmen retention rate

·      Alumnae network includes 16,000 living alumnae in 48 states and 24 countries.

·      More notable alumnae: Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund (and good friend of another women’s college alum, Hilary Clinton); Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the all-woman, African-American a cappella ensemble, Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Stephens College

Stephens College: Columbia, Missouri

Founded in 1833, Stephens College is the country’s second oldest women’s college. But with undergraduate programs in everything from fashion marketing and management to theatrical costume design and online Masters programs in businesses administration and strategic leadership, it offers more than many traditional colleges.

Currently restructuring its alumnae network to make it more dynamic and regionally structured, the new, ten-member national alumnae association board is expected to make its debut in the spring, along with 30 to 50 national directors. The restructuring follows the success the new pilot alumnae program in Los Angeles, the “LA Women for Stephens Club.” The volunteer programs matches alumnae with nearby high schools to engage with counselors and find students who may be a good fit for the school.

·      780 students

·      $36 million endowment

·      13-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio

·      74% freshmen retention rate

·      Alumnae network includes 20,000 living alumnae and about a dozen active alumnae groups across the country.

·      Notable alumnae: Jennifer Tilly, actress; Paula Zahn, journalist.

sweetbriar

Sweet Briar College: Sweet Briar, Virginia

With approximately 650 undergraduates on its 3,250-acres Virginia campus, Sweet Briar College has one of the best acres-to-student ratios of all the women’s colleges on this list. But for those students wary of long walks to class, the school has over forty bikes (pink, of course!) available to help them get around. Known for a faculty that is highly engaged with its student body, and, according to Vice President for Alumnae and Development Heidi Hansen McCrory, “a closeness that is a result of our small size, our traditions which bond students, and a robust co-curricular program of student athletic teams,” many of Sweet Briar’s alumnae stay active after graduation. In the last comprehensive fundraising campaign, which ended in 2006, 87% of alumnae pulled out their pocketbooks for the college.

Teresa Tomlinson, mayor of Columbus, Georgia, credits Sweet Briar with her sense of leadership and service. She told VITAMIN W, “There is no doubt that my experience at an all women's college well prepared me for my further academic studies and my careers in law and elected office. A women's college graduate has a gentle confidence about her. I left Sweet Briar College with a real sense of having been handed a legacy to make a difference. So, not only was I educated, I was given a sense of purpose and the confidence to know I would achieve it.”

·      650 students

·      $327 million endowment

·      8-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio

·      75.8% freshmen retention rate

·      Alumnae network includes 14,000 living alumnae, a giving rate of 38-40%, and 600-700 volunteers.

·      More notable alumnae: Sally Miller Gearhart, American teacher, feminist, science fiction writer and political activist; Leah Busque, founder and CEO of TaskRabbit.

Wellesley College's Galen Stone Tower

Wellesley College Wellesley, Massachusetts

Long before she was Bill Clinton’s better half, Hilary Rodham Clinton was making waves at Wellesley College, the place where she went from being president of the school’s Young Republicans to a feminist and civil rights activist. Her Wellesley graduation speech was so notable that the June 20, 1969 issue of LIFE magazine featured her along with three other class speakers from that year in an article titled, “The Class of ’69.” Today, students with an eye towards global affairs can take classes at a Wellesley institute named after another notable alum, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Wellesley continues to make history today by being the first women’s college to offer massive open online courses. WellesleyX will make Wellesley courses available through the Harvard-MIT online learning collaborative edX beginning in the fall of 2013. 

·      2,500 students

·      $1.45 billion endowment

·      8-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio

·      94.8% freshmen retention rate

·      Alumnae network includes 35,000 living alumnae, and a giving rate of 44.5%

·      More notable alumnae: Diane Sawyer, television broadcast journalist for ABC and CBS; Pamela Melroy, former astronaut/NASA Space Shuttle pilot and commander.

wesleyan

Wesleyan College: Macon, Georgia

Since opening its doors to the ninety-one young women who made up its first class in 1839, Wesleyan College has remained committed to its motto, “First for Women,” by offering its students an education with a specific brand of scholarship, leadership, service, and affiliation with the United Methodist Church. The school is also committed to sustainability, setting ambitious “green goals,” like a 25% reduction in energy consumption by 2017. In 2007, President Ruth A. Knox joined 400 other institutions by signing the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment.

Alumnae can stay involved by attending on- and off-campus events, like a special child-friendly Valentine’s Day celebration at the college or a museum luncheon in Florida.

·      615 undergraduate students

·      $60 million endowment

·      10-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio

·      79.5% freshmen retention rate

·      Alumnae network includes 9,000 living alumnae

·       Notable alumnae: Catherine Elizabeth Benson, first woman to earn a college bachelor’s degree; Madame Chiang Kai-shek (graduated from Wellesley); Phaedra Parks, entertainment attorney and cast member on Real Housewives of Atlanta.

 

 

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Deena Shanker is a graduate of Barnard College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. After graduation from law school, she returned to New York to practice commercial litigation at Vinson & Elkins, with a strong focus on pro bono work.  Currently focused on writing, she covers women’s issues, politics, business, and culture. She has written for Salon, Fortune.com, Grist, and GOOD. When she isn’t writing, Deena enjoys reading anything by J.R.R. Tolkien, playing with her dog, and eating too much cheese. She lives in New York. Deena tweets from @deenashanker

top image: Wellesley 2011 Graduation

All images via the schools