Trump bump? Student numbers rise at US women’s colleges

Since the 2016 US presidential election, women’s colleges have been seeing significant gains as more young women embrace #MeToo

August 13, 2018
Bryn Mawr College
Bryn Mawr College

For years, top women’s colleges have faced a challenge in that the overwhelming majority of high school girls have no interest in attending them. Student satisfaction surveys show that, once enrolled at these colleges, students love the experience. But many of them arrive despite a college being a women’s institution, not because of it.

That may be changing.

Some of the top women’s colleges are expecting record classes to enrol this month, as yield – the percentage of admitted applicants who accept admissions offers – is up significantly.

It is relatively easy for well-known institutions to see gains in application numbers, which these institutions and other elite liberal arts colleges are experiencing as well. After all, applying doesn't require a commitment. In the era of the Common Application, applying to one more college is easy for an applicant.

Yield is another matter. It is about putting down a deposit and making a real choice. And the women’s colleges experiencing big gains in yield (gains of more than a percentage point or two in yield are big) were seeing application gains for years, but not yield gains.

Last year’s decisions about where to enrol came after 2016 US presidential election, but much student planning and thinking about college choice that year preceded the Trump election and the #MeToo movement. That impact appears to be showing up this year.

To examine the impact, consider Bryn Mawr College. Its 3,166 applications this admissions cycle represents an 8 percent increase from last year. But far more notable is the yield increase from 32 to 36 percent.

Officials at Bryn Mawr and elsewhere sense that young women are deciding that they want a women’s college, not just a liberal arts college that happens to be a women’s college, as was the case in the past.

“These are great schools. People have always been interested in us because we are great schools,” said Kim Cassidy, president at Bryn Mawr. “I think, prior to 2016, many high school girls didn't look at us because they didn’t understand what it would mean to be at a women’s college.” Recent events, she said, may be changing their view.

There has been a sharp increase in campus visits, she noted, which suggests more women are open to the idea of attending women’s colleges than was the case in the past.

Bryn Mawr is not alone in noting a change in attitudes.

Barnard College has had a 10 percent increase in applications and a four-percentage-point increase in yield, from 51 to 55 percent, since 2016.

Jennifer Fondiller, vice-president of enrolment at Barnard, said she is seeing more essays from applicants than in the past on issues of working on political campaigns and of joining protest movements or events, such as the Women’s March. A larger share of essays than in the past touch on issues of sexism or privilege, she added.

From the essays she reads and from talking to applicants, Fondiller said, she believes that those enrolling are “acutely aware of what is happening in the world as current events have motivated them to fight for social justice and equality…They are looking for colleges that will prepare them to enter these challenging spaces and navigate these conversations with confidence.”

Sonya Stephens, president of Mount Holyoke College, is seeing similar patterns.

Applications for this admission cycle were up, from 3,446 to 3,611, a gain that Stephens said didn’t seem unusual, compared to other competitive liberal arts colleges. But the yield gain – from 30 percent to 34 percent – is “very striking.”

For the college it will mean a notably larger class of new students arriving later this month. Currently, the estimate is 636, up from 529 a year ago.

Stephens said that the college has a strong commitment to social justice. She and others there have spoken out about women’s rights, including the rights of transgender women, as well as about the rights of immigrants, minority students and other groups.

These values seem to be resonating with prospective students, Stephens said. When colleges survey students about why they enrolled, typically academic programmes, prestige, campus life and career goals top the list. Most other factors are well below.

When Mount Holyoke this year asked students who decided to enrol why they did so, 54 percent said that awareness of social movements influenced their decision “quite a bit” or “very much”.

Audrey Smith, vice president of enrolment at Smith College, said that applications have been edging up there for a decade, so she doesn’t attribute all of this year’s success to the way young women are looking at the sexism and injustice in the world.

Still, she said, the trends are favouring Smith and other women’s colleges.

Going back a few years, she compared the figures for the class that enrolled in the fall of 2015 to the class that will enrol this month. Applications are up, from 5,006 to 5,780, the admission rate is down from 38 per cent to 31 per cent and the yield is up, from 32 per cent to 35 per cent.

“Fewer women are ruling out women’s colleges,” she said. Smith has long had many of its applicants also apply to Mount Holyoke and Wellesley College. Now the college is receiving more cross-apps with Amherst College, Brown University and Wesleyan University. When women sought to apply to such colleges in the past, they typically ruled out women's colleges.

The trend is not unique to the Northeast, although that is where most of the nation's most prestigious women's colleges are located.

Agnes Scott College, in Georgia, hasn’t been tracking whether #MeToo is motivating more students to enrol. But yield is up this year – from 25 percent to 30 percent. College officials credit curricular reforms, which have placed more of an emphasis on global and leadership skills. But this may relate to the broader environment for women as well, they said in a statement.

“We typically attract the type of students who are more globally aware of the world and their place in it or who are seeking to expand their understanding of others, and who often have a growing desire to effect positive change, whether that be in their local communities, society as a whole or particular groups of marginalised peoples,” said the statement.

This fall’s first-year class is expected to be the largest in the college’s history.

Not all leaders of women’s colleges have embraced the #MeToo movement. At Sweet Briar College, which has struggled with enrolment of late, many students and alumnae were horrified when college officials did not criticise a commencement speech in May that appeared to place the blame for sexual harassment on its victims.

For those colleges that are explicitly talking about #MeToo and political leaders who are misogynistic, the current moment is prompting some to rethink how they position their institutions.

Cassidy, of Bryn Mawr, said that she sees her college and others being more explicit about the value of women’s colleges, while also trying to fight off misconceptions about them.

“I think we need to be really clear that the message is not about separating from society,” but about “owning who we are,” she said.

“It's really important to talk about the value and the great education students are going to get,” she said. For women, that means they are going to get an environment “where women are the focus and the drivers of academic excellence, that these are places where women dominate all fields.”

Smith, of Smith College, says she sees much more confidence today in admissions officers drawing attention to the women’s college ethos.

“I used to feel it was necessary to put a bushel basket over the light of the wonderful attributes of a women’s college,” Smith said. “It would tell a student, ‘trust me, when you are older, you will understand.’

“Now we’ve let that message out into the light, and it’s at the front of the discussion.”

This is an edited version of a story originally published by Inside Higher Ed.

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