Top Women’s Colleges
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- Women account for nearly 60% of students enrolled in college today.
- Women's colleges prioritize and offer unique educational experiences for women.
- The top women's colleges highlight the importance of diversified educational options.
Women's colleges provide unique educational experiences to women pursuing higher education across the nation. Dr. Gretchen Edwalds-Gilbert, Acting Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty at Scripps College, says that “Women’s colleges afford students a supportive, academically rigorous environment that also allows them to develop as leaders in curricular and co-curricular areas.”
With over 10 million women enrolled at higher education institutions, women's colleges offer academic opportunities such as small class sizes and inclusive communities.
Women's colleges emerged during a time when most colleges and universities barred women from enrolling. Today, about 5% of women college students attend women's colleges. Women's colleges in the U.S. account for a small section within expanding higher education options.
What Is a Women's College?
Women's colleges prioritize the enrollment and higher education of women. Many women's colleges are liberal arts institutions, focusing on educational pursuits such as creative arts, sociology, and literature.
The first women's college, Georgia's Wesleyan College, opened its doors in 1836. By 1960, 230 women's colleges offered higher education opportunities to women across the country.
Since the 1960s, many women's colleges have closed their doors — leaving fewer than 50 women's colleges open today. Over time, decreasing demand for single-gender institutions forced some women's colleges to change their educational focus. Others have changed their admissions policy by welcoming men, nonbinary students, and transgender women into their institutions. Elizabeth Dion, a senior theater and international studies double major at Hollins University, says that:
"Because of the intentionality of historically women’s communities, the students, faculty, and staff here [at Hollins University] grow incredibly tight and complex communities that are focused on supporting each other and allowing each student to be their truest and best self. I personally wasn’t looking explicitly for a women’s college during my college search, I just happened to stumble upon Hollins and felt immediately drawn to it, but I am so glad I did find my historically women’s college because I don’t know who I’d be without it."
While some women's colleges experienced steady or increasing enrollment in recent decades, most encountered financial loss due to low enrollment. The Me Too movement and other political actions have helped increase applications to women's colleges, providing a much needed boost for many institutions.
Women's colleges offer a unique experience that many women find academically, socially, and financially beneficial. Dr. Edwalds-Gilbert confirms that “Within the curriculum, students learn about gender and women’s studies, and faculty are conscious to include readings from a diverse array of scholars in courses across disciplines. Framing knowledge in this way recognizes the many contributions of women and people of color helps students see themselves as knowledge creators.”
Our Ranking Methodology
In ranking the best women's colleges in the U.S., we considered the following factors in our methodology:
- Graduation Rate: Graduation rates reflect the percentage of students who complete a four-year degree program within six years. Understanding a school's graduation rate can offer insight into a school's quality and levels of success. Additionally, graduation rates can highlight the impact of support systems available to students.
- Retention Rate: The retention rate — percentage of students who return to school each year — for colleges is a metric of ongoing success. Retention rates do not explain why students return, or do not return, to school each year. However, the percentages offer insight into how many students continue their education despite setbacks or challenges that may arise. Retention rates can indicate the impact of available student supports.
- Cost of Attendance: The total cost of college attendance varies for each institution — public vs private college costs can differ significantly. It is important to factor in the cost of attendance when comparing colleges. While the real cost of college includes more than the sticker price — consider books, food, housing, extracurricular activity fees, and other incidentals — it remains important to understand and compare the base cost of attendance for each school.
- Financial Aid: Financial aid includes scholarships, grants, federal loans, and private loans. The average financial aid package for each school can indicate the level of financial support students may receive from a school. After completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), students receive a financial aid package identifying financial support options for the upcoming school year. Financial aid is an important factor in school rankings as cost is an increasingly important element of college choice.
Top 10 Women's Colleges
Frequently Asked Questions About Women's Colleges
What is the most prestigious women's college?
The most prestigious women's colleges are highly ranked schools based on criteria like graduation and retention rates. Wellesley College, Barnard College, and Spelman College rank as some of the top women's colleges in the country. Wellesley has the highest graduation and retention rates of all women's colleges.
Barnard College, in partnership with Columbia University, offers students an expanse of academic courses and high graduation rates. Spelman College, the oldest historically Black college and university for women in the country, invests in the academic development of Black women.
Why do women's colleges exist?
Women's colleges were founded to provide women with higher education opportunities during a time when women were barred from institutions nationwide.
During the 19th century, hundreds of women's colleges opened, creating a variety of educational opportunities for women. Today, women's colleges continue to offer students a unique educational experience, often with a focus in liberal arts.
What was the first college to admit women?
Oberlin College, located in Ohio, was the first higher education institution to admit women. Oberlin was a coed institution from its founding in 1833. Oberlin was also the first college to admit Black students into its programs. Wesleyan College, founded in 1836, was the first women's college to open — dedicated specifically to educating women.
Are all women's colleges private?
Women's colleges — schools that entirely or almost entirely enroll women — are typically private higher education institutions. These undergraduate institutions often focus on liberal arts studies.
Nearly all women's colleges are private institutions. Many private women's colleges collaborate with coed institutions to expand their student offerings.
Gretchen Edwalds-Gilbert, PhD
Gretchen Edwalds-Gilbert is Acting Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty at Scripps College, a women's college in Claremont California.
She is a molecular biologist who completed her PhD at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University and did postdoctoral research at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the Beckman Research Institute at City of Hope in Duarte, California. Edwalds-Gilbert is a member of the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) and serves as a CUR Councilor for the Biology Division. In her own molecular biology lab, she has supervised more than 65 undergraduates and is a champion of increasing the number of underrepresented students in science. She is a National Science Foundation grantee, focusing on the regulation of gene expression under stress response, and she has received funding from the Keck Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Warsaw Institute of Genetics and Biotechnology throughout the 2018–2019 academic year.
Elizabeth Dion (she/they) is a senior theatre and international studies double major at Hollins University. They are heavily involved in student leadership positions and extracurriculars on campus such as serving as the president of the Hollins Student Theatre Association, Lead Admissions Ambassador, Student Success Leader, stage manager, and Orientation Team Leader.
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