How women's colleges play a special role in preparing women for leadership

Some schools are out-producing coeducational institutions

Women's colleges send important signals—and provide key training—to prepare female students to take on leadership roles, experts tell Fast Company.

Fifty years ago there were 230 female-only colleges. Today there are about 40.

Despite the decline in their numbers, women's colleges continue to play an important role in developing female leaders, says Kristen Renn, a professor of higher education at Michigan State University. She argues that the closures are caused by issues facing all small, rural liberal arts colleges—not just ones for women.

A 2013 paper published by the American Institute of Physics and conducted by researchers at Miami University and Indiana University found students attending women-only colleges perform better than those at coeducational schools. And the single-sex schools have slightly higher rates of retention as well, according to a 2014 report from the Women's College Coalition (WCC).

"Pound for pound, [women's colleges] outproduce their peer institutions for women in some of the nongender traditional fields," such as STEM, says Renn, adding that because all leadership positions are held by women, the students are encouraged to fulfill those roles.

Evolving with society's needs

Although recent media attention on women's colleges has focused on closings, not all of the institutions are struggling.

By diversifying and responding to consumer demand, many schools are remaining competitive, says Marilyn Hammond, president of WCC .

For example, since its founding in 1989, Trinity Washington College has grown from 800 students—300 traditional, 500 adult weekend students—to a university with about 2,500 students total. The institution built nursing and business schools to provide more career-skills programs and improve its revenue streams, as well as professional education and graduation programs.

Additionally, its course schedules remain flexible—the institution offers classes six days a week, in the day and evenings.

"We had to think deeply about what our job was... The job was to go out and find students who needed us very much who, with a good deal of struggle and hard work, could be successful. They are out there by the thousands, actually," says Pat McGuire, Trinity Washington's president.

Other schools also have launched programs for online students, accelerated bachelor's degrees, and global learning and leadership.

"What an individual institution should do really depends on their own history, their own DNA, if you will. There's not necessarily one answer that, if all small colleges did this, this is what would be the key to success," says Hammond (Moran, "Strong Female Lead," Fast Company, 4/2).

The takeaway: Women's colleges that diversify their program offerings remain competitive and successful, and may play a major role in boosting female leadership skills, Fast Company reports.

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