Doing Better: NC’s highly-regarded women’s colleges deserve closer look

Christopher Gergen
Christopher Gergen

A half-century ago, there were 230 women’s colleges in the United States. Today, fewer than 50 remain, as declining interest in single-sex campuses and liberal arts education, as well as longstanding financial struggles, take a lasting toll. Just last year, Sweet Briar College in Virginia stunned students, faculty and staff with a sudden decision to shut down, only to reverse course after pressure from alumni.

As rising high school seniors zero in this summer on their preferred college destinations, most of them won’t focus seriously on women’s colleges. But a look at the data suggests they might want to think twice.

According to a study by the Women’s College Coalition, young women attending women’s colleges are one-and-a-half more times as likely to focus on math, science or pre-med studies than their counterparts at coed schools.

While graduates of women’s colleges account for just 2 percent of college graduates in the U.S., the same research shows, they have produced 20 percent of women in Congress and one-third of the women on Fortune 1000 boards. Among the high-profile graduates of women’s colleges: Hillary Clinton (Wellesley), Katharine Hepburn (Bryn Mawr), Anna Quindlen (Barnard) and Nancy Reagan (Smith).

Graduates of these colleges typically report feeling safer, more satisfied with their experience and better prepared for the workforce than peers at coed schools, in part because they had better access to leadership roles and more interaction with faculty.

Customized services

This is all good news for North Carolina, which fielded three of the nation’s top 30 women’s colleges in recent rankings by the website College Choice. Raleigh’s Meredith College landed at No. 5, with Greensboro’s Bennett College at No. 25 and Winston-Salem’s Salem College at No. 26.

These same three schools also performed well in affordability rankings of women’s colleges conducted by the website Best Value Schools. Factoring in tuition, fees and financial aid packages, the study calculated that the net cost of a year at Meredith, Bennett, or Salem is about $20,000, making them competitive with many coed schools and contributing to a trend of growing socio-economic diversity at women’s colleges nationally.

Meanwhile, to remain competitive with coed schools, these three colleges continue to enhance the education they provide, often through highly customized services.

Meredith touts StrongPoints, its trademarked personal coaching and advising program that’s offered to all students at no additional cost. Through the program, students identify their biggest strengths and then develop them over four years through carefully crafted academic schedules, experiential learning opportunities, financial literacy training, and career planning. It’s a key reason why 97 percent of Meredith alums report high satisfaction with their learning experience – and why 94 percent of them are employed or in grad school shortly after graduation.

Expanding their reach

The declining popularity of the liberal arts at many colleges and universities has caused particular problems for women’s colleges, which are typically steeped in them. Meredith and Bennett, which is a historically black institution, have created alliances to help expand the scope of their offerings. Meredith partners with N.C. State and Bennett has teamed with N.C. A&T on programs that enable students to earn dual degrees in engineering. In that same spirit of expanding its reach, Bennett established its Center for Global Studies as part of an effort to accelerate international learning opportunities.

Meanwhile, the Salem Signature Program, required for all undergraduates at Salem, seeks to incrementally build students’ skills, mindset and opportunities over four years. First-year workshops on career visioning and financial training lead into service learning and career mentoring initiatives in the second year. The upper class experience is highlighted by job internships, leadership training, research projects and a capstone course that synthesizes learning across all four years.

Many states across the country do not have any women’s colleges; in North Carolina, we’re fortunate to have three highly-regarded ones – and they have a long track record of producing precisely the kind of talent that our communities need to thrive. Too often these colleges are overlooked; what they really deserve from our next generation of college students and their families is a closer look.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.