Women’s Colleges Receive High Marks for Learning Effectiveness But recruiting minority students still a challengeBY Eleanor Lee Yates
Amherst, Va.Good news for women’s colleges: A recent national survey of 276 colleges and universities has found that students attending women’s colleges give their schools high marks for learning effectiveness, as well as for providing enriching educational experiences and a supportive campus environment. Women’s colleges have long been known for providing a sound educational foundation in an atmosphere away from the distractions of the opposite sex. The fact that many women’s colleges are small and foster a sense of community along with providing more individual attention may be factors in their high marks in the National Survey of Student Engagement.The survey, a $3.3 million project underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts, set out to find what colleges and universities specifically contribute to student learning. The survey does not focus on how many resources colleges have but rather on what they do with them. The survey included responses from 63,000 first-year students and seniors on topics such as how much time they spend preparing for class, talking with professors and working on extracurricular projects. The survey also examined how much academic and social support colleges offer them. Students ranked their colleges in five categories such as academic challenges, enriching educational experiences and supportive campus environments.Sweet Briar College, a small women’s college in Amherst, Va., is among one of only four schools in the survey scoring in the top 20th percentile in the categories for both freshmen and seniors. Columbia College in South Carolina scored in the top 10 percent in four categories and Regis College in Maine scored in the top 20 percent in four categories. At Meredith College in North Carolina, 90 percent of freshmen and seniors say the campus environment is supportive. Fifteen of the nation’s 73 women’s colleges participated in the survey.The National Survey of Student Engagement is considered another option to the annual U.S. News and World Report ranking, which measures a school’s resources, such as the library size.
Traditionally Low Minority EnrollmentThe NSSE was the second recent study to net good news for women’s colleges. Last September, Professor Mikyong Kim of the University of Missouri-Columbia found that women’s colleges are more effective in fostering a sense of civic responsibility in their students. Kim undertook the study after observing how many political and social leaders attended women’s colleges. Kim says women’s colleges have a more socially active and altruistically oriented climate.But critics say when it comes to minority enrollment, there is much work to be done. Minority enrollment traditionally is low at most women’s colleges, and a spot-check revealed that change is slow in coming. Virginia’s Sweet Briar College has long been known for solid academics in a small-town setting in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The enrollment today is 740. White students make up 87 percent of the student body; African Americans 4 percent; 3 percent Hispanic; 2 percent Asian/Pacific Islander; 2 percent American Indian; and 3 percent are residents of other countries. Though Sweet Briar’s overall college retention rate for 1999-2000 is 70 percent, the retention rate for minorities is approximately 90 percent. Sweet Briar College president, Dr. Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, says retention rates are typically higher here for minority students than for Whites. Her theory is that a minority student who makes the decision to come to college in an isolated setting with few other minorities is serious about her commitment.Muhlenfeld is happy about the NSSE results, but not totally surprised. It would be hard for any student to slip through the cracks, she says.“We are so small that one of the things we have to offer is a real community in action,” she says. “Everyone is not happy every minute. But because of our size, it is difficult for people to remain a stereotype. We have a small number of minority students but they’re well integrated into the life of the college.” Indeed, several years ago the college elected its first African American student body president, and new ground was broken several years ago when two African American women were invited to be on the alumni board. Currently one African American is on the board of trustees and another will join in April.Muhlenfeld is equally concerned about attracting African American professors. Except for filling in during a sabbatical or another temporary post, no African American has been on the faculty at Sweet Briar.“I think part of it is that we are isolated here. There is not a large job market for spouses,” she says. Dr. Valdrie Walker, dean of Co-Curricular Life at Sweet Briar, is African American. She thinks she knows why small liberal arts colleges, particularly women’s colleges, do not draw a lot of minorities.“We’re a people who are coming out of a difficult past. We’re trying to maximize every opportunity, and many minority students think larger is better. If we invest in college, we want to max out the return,” Walker says. Some minority students may look at big schools as offering a smorgasbord of programs and classes. “But I’ve seen the richness of small schools,” says Walker, whose career in education has included being a school teacher, a junior high school principal and assistant dean of academic advising at the University of Virginia. “We make sure the environment here is such that they can survive. They realize they are academic and social successes.”Walker says she feels the college has a true commitment to diversity, but she has not led the cause. “I am not looking to be a color here. I don’t spend my time talking about being Black at Sweet Briar. I don’t have to,” she says. At Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., one of the prestigious Seven Sisters colleges, minorities make up a higher percentage of the enrollment than at many women’s colleges. White students make up 51 percent of the enrollment; African American students 6 percent; non-resident international 6 percent; American Indian or Alaskan 1 percent; Asian or Pacific Islander 24 percent; Hispanic 6 percent; and 7 percent undeclared race.Wellesley also boasts a high student retention rate – 96 percent in 1999. However, the figures are not broken down by race.Mary Ann Hill, a college spokeswoman, says Wellesley has an active network of alumnae that help the admissions office identify and recruit qualified students of all races. Wellesley invites all students who have been accepted to stay on campus for a weekend, with the school paying the cost of transportation for those students who could not otherwise afford to come.Wellesley also has a need-blind admissions policy — admissions decisions are independent of a student’s financial need. Once admitted, the college meets 100 percent of a student’s demonstrated financial need. “These policies enable us to admit the most qualified students, regardless of their ability to pay,” Hill says.
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