Can An All-Women's College Education Survive?

Mar 29, 2016

This month marks the one year anniversary of Sweet Briar College’s near-shut down.  In the first part of this report, we heard from students and faculty who are just happy to be back at work on the college’s Amherst campus. Today, we return to take a closer look at how Sweet Briar is adapting to ensure its single-sex survival in a coed kind of world. WMRA's Emily Richardson-Lorente has the story.

[Sounds of horse hooves clopping]

If you think of Sweet Briar as a “genteel southern women’s college,” then you’re probably not surprised to hear this story open with the sound of horses’ hooves. Yes, horseback riding is a long tradition here on this 3,250 acre campus. And, sure, there’s lots of other traditions you might associate with an historic all-girl’s college — especially one that students call “the pink bubble.” Take the Holla Holla chant.

[Holla Holla chant]

But here’s another sound you’ll hear at Sweet Briar today.

[Sound of wheels spinning in Mechatronics class]

That’s the sound of a robotic car running in a “Mechatronics” class. It’s part of the engineering program here. Of 45 women’s colleges in the U.S., Sweet Briar is one of only two that has the accreditation necessary to offer a 4-year degree in engineering.

[In Mechatronics class]     Hank Yochum: “And they would both turn on at their max speed with this.”

Programs like this — that train students for high-demand, high paying STEM jobs — may be one key to keeping Sweet Briar in business. This particular class is small — just six young women. But it means lots of individual attention for engineering majors like Maddy Lee.

[In Mechatronics class]     Maddy Lee: “So do I even need this digital right …”

MADDY LEE: I got into schools like Virginia Tech, UVA, UMD, and I was a little nervous it being all women, I went to a big coed high school so this is about a fourth the size of that. But I came here and I just absolutely loved it so I'm really, really happy I came.

Like many of the young women here, Maddy doesn’t quite fit the stereotype of a student at an all-women’s college. Unless, of course, the stereotype you have in mind is a whip-smart, engineer-in-training who’s programming a robot.

[In Mechatronics class]     Maddy: “I think it’s MC1 and MC3 because those are …”

Maddy is only a junior, but she already has a job lined up working for the US Navy when she graduates. In fact, the Navy is helping to pay her tuition.

LEE: Yeah, so I have that lined up.

Reporter: Wow!

LEE: Yeah.

[In Mechatronics class]     Hank Yochum: “But then after that, you send it the PWM signal …”

Engineering Department Chair Hank Yochum is teaching this class, and says he loves the small class size.

HANK YOCHUM: It's often very informal — lots of people working on projects, a lot of hands on experience.

In fact, in last year’s “Technology in Society” class, Hank’s students worked with a Brazilian man who had lost both arms and legs in an electrical accident.

YOCHUM: We’d been working with him for a while, it's a really challenging problem.

So the students designed and delivered a prosthetic arm.

YOCHUM: That allowed him to brush his teeth for the first time in thirteen years since he had his accident. We actually thought we'd probably bring it back to tweak more, but he really wanted to keep that, so really powerful educational experience for our students, but also for us.

[In Mechatronics class]     Hank Yochum: “And the … (twanging) … and the (twanging) … so we have an event for high school students coming up, not this weekend but the next, and they’re making an optical bass guitar, and that’s what you’re hearing over there.”

Strengthening the engineering program is a high priority for Sweet Briar President Phil Stone.

PHIL STONE: The engineering program is really important to us. Not only to give another choice to young women who come here but for those who retain any kind of caricature of a women's college as something that involves no more than white gloves and pearls -- if that ever was the case -- this trumps that just immediately because engineering's serious business. And our women here are serious, whatever they major in.

[In Mechatronics class]     Maddy Lee: “So would that be a way to turn it right or left?”

A half century ago, there were 230 women’s colleges in the U.S. Now there are 45. Of course, back then, many universities didn’t accept female students, so a woman who wanted a higher education needed to attend a women’s college. Today, the situation is drastically different. Women outnumber men on co-ed campuses in the U.S. They earn more Bachelor’s degrees and generally higher grades. So are women-only colleges still relevant?

MICHELE OZUMBA: Well, I certainly believe women colleges are as relevant now as they ever have been in history.

That’s Michele Ozumba, president of the Women’s College Coalition.

OZUMBA: What they have in common is: gender is not the, you know, the leading definition of who you are in that environment. There's an expectation that you're there to succeed. And you have a voice and you have an opportunity to discover your whole self.

[In Mechatronics class]     Maddy Lee: “Oh, that’s interesting.”
Hank Yochum: “Yeah, so you might make it a hundred, or something like that …”

Back in Mechatronics class, Sweet Briar Junior Maddy Lee agrees with that assessment.

LEE: Coming to a women's college makes a really bold stance that you are all for women in leadership positions. I think they're great and I think they'll be around for a little longer. (laughing)

In the end, of course, Sweet Briar’s brush with closure may be all the proof YOU need that women’s colleges are on their way out. But look at it this way — a year ago, Sweet Briar’s leadership had given up on the school. And then students — both past and present — banded together, ignored the “experts” and found a way to surmount “insurmountable financial challenges.” That took strength, generosity and grit. If nothing else, that may speak to the continuing value of an all-women’s college education.

[Holla Holla chant]     “Here’s to Sweet Briar, holla, holla, holla …”