The announcement that Sweet Briar College in Virginia will close at the end of the academic year has fueled a national conversation about the future of women’s colleges and the viability of all small, private colleges. The quick and vocal reaction from Sweet Briar’s students, faculty, staff and alumnae to save the school is just one indication that women’s colleges still serve a vital role in helping women become leaders in our society.
In our country, women still earn only 80 percent on the dollar of what men earn. Last year, women made up only 12 percent of all executive positions at the 50 largest public companies in Wisconsin. Only three of these companies had a female CEO, and 19 had no female executives at all. Clearly, we have a long way to go.
It shouldn’t be surprising that while women’s college graduates make up only 2 percent of the total college graduate population, they comprise more than 20 percent of women in Congress and 33 percent of the women on Fortune 1000 boards. These women learned by example.
Women’s colleges are also vital to underserved populations. They enroll a more racially and ethnically diverse population of students than public universities or private coed institutions. They also award more financial aid on average than coed private colleges.
This is certainly true of Alverno where 44 percent of current students are students of color, 71 percent are first-generation college students, and 100 percent of full-time undergraduate students who demonstrated need received financial aid assistance from the College’s $40 million-plus financial aid program in 2014–2015.
Many women’s colleges are holding their own in a competitive marketplace. Milwaukee is the only city that supports two women’s colleges (Alverno College and Mount Mary University). I’m happy that both are thriving because of the tremendous support from our community and alumnae—and because of the outstanding work of our graduates in the city and beyond.
While it is disheartening to hear of any college shutting its doors, the demise of Sweet Briar does not reflect the future of all women’s colleges. Sweet Briar faced unique and significant challenges. It has fewer than 1,000 students and is located in a rural area. Its isolated location prevents it from offering part-time graduate or adult programming and makes it virtually impossible to build corporate partnerships and internships near campus. Sweet Briar also has a history of serving affluent women—many of whom have multiple college options available.
In contrast, Alverno’s urban location accommodates commuter and residential students. Alverno offers an array of liberal arts and professional degrees. We have a rich history, and we are also committed to meeting the changing needs of the contemporary student and the local community. Our ongoing planning process has resulted in new programming and modern facilities, making Alverno an attractive option for women and for men, too, in our graduate programs.
Like all colleges, we must adapt to the changing needs of our future students. Women’s colleges are thriving, but they must adapt to do so. The competition is much stiffer today than it was 20 years ago. I don’t know of any college or university that doesn’t reach out to nontraditional students—the working adults who are trying to either complete a degree or reinvent themselves. Alverno was an early leader in providing excellent options for these students, and now we are growing and adapting in other ways.
A decade ago, we were best known for our Weekend College, and we had only 100 graduate students in just one master’s program. Today, we have 700 graduate students in four degree programs, and our enrollment of traditional-aged students is at record levels. We are also adapting more of our programs for the adult learner to offer flexible online options. In fact, we will be rolling out a new alternative to our Weekend College program this fall.
If we want to continue as leaders in education, we can’t just stay the way we are. Yet, we must stay faithful to who we are, and who we are is an outstanding women’s college open and accessible to all. We prepare our women to become leaders. We excel at teaching students to solve problems and make effective decisions, to think analytically, to write and speak effectively, and to learn new skills. Perhaps most important, we help women develop all of their God-given leadership skills that are needed in an increasingly competitive world.
Our city and our world need more strong women—and strong women need a place to start. I am proud to say many strong women start here at Alverno.
Mary J. Meehan, Ph.D.