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US Women's Colleges Seen as Incubators for Independence

Women's Colleges in US See Rising Enrollment
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Women's Colleges in US See Rising Enrollment

BRYN MAWR, PENNSYLVANIA — When Sandy Doran became president of Salem College, a women’s college in North Carolina, she inherited a daunting task.

“When I arrived, we were in a bit of a financial pickle,” Doran told VOA.

Doran faced a decline in enrollment seen across higher education. According to figures by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment in higher education began declining in 2011. One possible reason for the decline is that after the economy recovered from the stock market crash in 2008, young people felt more secure jumping into jobs or putting off college for a few years after high school.

But like many colleges and universities, Salem hadn't seen the decline coming, and took on debt to build new facilities. Doran and the school turned to alumni for support.

“Through relentless communication, transparency about what was needed, we were really able to unify the campus, unify the students, faculty, staff, and the wider alumni community and the wider community of Winston-Salem,” Doran said, referring to the city that is home to the campus.

Salem College was founded in 1722, Doran said. “It predates the U.S. Constitution!”

And like many other women’s colleges in the United States, Salem has seen significant positive change in the past four years.

“Our applications have increased by 100%,” Doran said.

Notable women’s colleges, including Barnard College in New York, Mount Holyoke College and Smith College in Massachusetts, Agnes Scott College in Georgia, and Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, have all noted increased applications and enrollment since 2016 and the #MeToo movement, which was created in reaction to sexual harassment and assaults.

“After the 2016 election, we definitely saw an uptick in young women looking for these spaces where women are empowered, and they're empowered to use their voice,” Marissa Turchi, director of undergraduate admissions at Bryn Mawr College, told VOA.

“Years ago, students were selecting Bryn Mawr despite the fact that it was a women's college. I think more and more now are choosing Bryn Mawr because it’s a women's college,” Turchi said.

For some students, the choice to study at a women’s college has always been an easy one.

“Women's colleges actually run in my family,” Katarina Karris-Flores, a student at Bryn Mawr told VOA.

“Both my aunts went to Wellesley and my cousin went to Wellesley and my mom went to a woman's college in California,” she explained.

But her classmate, Liz Marchini, said she had never planned to attend a women’s college.

“I thought that was kind of ridiculous, you know,” Marchini told VOA.

“My thought process was like, well I'll have to work with men later on in life,” she added.

But both Marchini and Karris-Flores said that during summer internships in which they worked in co-ed settings, they felt confident in a way they didn’t see mirrored by young women coming from coed environments.

“I noticed that out of all the women in the group that I worked with, I was the only outspoken one like I was the one very confident in what I had to say,” Karris-Flores said of her experience working at Princeton last summer.

“I quickly realized that it's not about the absence of men, it's more about the presence of women,” Marchini said, describing her first tour of the campus before the even enrolled in classes.

“The space was built with women in mind, you know, women don't have to fight for their place. And so you can just focus on making yourself a better person rather than just like trying to even to find a spot,” she added.

Additionally, these women said that their experience at Bryn Mawr has defied stereotypes about women’s colleges - including their isolation and lack of interaction with men.

Students at Bryn Mawr can also take classes at the nearby Haverford College, and vice versa.

“Men are in your space,” Marchini said.

“It’s not a convent.”