When I first heard the news that Sweet Briar College would close, I thought it was a mistake. How could this be true? Shuttering this respected, 114-year-old women's liberal arts institution seemed implausible.
But as the days passed, the circumstances of the decision became better known: a board vote to close at the end of the semester, news of "insurmountable financial challenges," and reaction from a shocked and anguished community of students, faculty, staff and dedicated alumnae.
As the president of a women's college, it is difficult to properly express my sadness. Sweet Briar has a distinguished history of educating women to "build and reshape their world however their passions lead them." Now, these young women and thousands of alumnae are left confused and anguished, and the inevitable question about women's colleges comes up yet again.
"Are women's college's still important and relevant?" To this question, I offer a strong and resounding answer: "yes!"
In many cases, female students are interested in studying in male-dominated fields, such as STEM, at women's colleges because of the opportunity to enter early research programs and the supportive environment provided to excel within these programs.
Women's college graduates also are twice as likely as female graduates of co-ed institutions to earn a Ph.D., attend medical school, be involved in philanthropic activities, attain higher positions in their careers, and earn higher incomes.
While this can also be true at co-ed schools, women's colleges in particular foster a space for young women to mature and develop as competent adults without fear of gendered social judgment or expectations. Women's colleges explicitly promote self-awareness and self-confidence so women can successfully navigate the very subtle (and not so subtle) gender issues that can arise in the workplace and in society at large.
Women's colleges have historically been known as safe places disenfranchised groups to attain an excellent education. For example, Simmons College was one of the only private colleges in the nation not to impose admission quotas on Jewish students in the first half of the 1900s. More recently, women's colleges have been at the forefront of national discussions about transgender and gender-nonconforming students.
There's no doubt higher education has become increasingly more competitive, as for-profit colleges have entered the industry, along with new models for delivery such as online and blended classes and MOOCS. Yes, women's colleges must be more innovative and more competitive, but so must all private colleges.
Women's colleges are not for everyone, just as large Division I athletic schools or colleges located in rural settings are not for every student. However, women's colleges have -- and will continue to -- provide an important and unique educational opportunity for women to live, learn and develop in supportive communities that develop them for positions of leadership.
Time will tell how the Sweet Briar situation plays out, however the necessity of women's colleges remains steadfast and important.