Gender Matters in College Choice:

Asking the Right Questions, Finding the Right College

- Susan E. Lennon, Executive Director, Women's College Coalition

Selecting the right college is one of the most important decisions you will make in your life.  It will influence many of the options you will have and the decisions you will make while you are in college and after you graduate.

The college search process is a complex and multifaceted one in which you must think broadly about both quantitative and qualitative variables.  You must dig deeply as you look at colleges so that you find the one that is right for you – the one at which you will be the most engaged and at which you will thrive and reach your academic and personal potential.

The college search process requires that you understand the person you are today, the person you are in the process of becoming, the person you aspire to be, and the personal, academic, and professional goals you hope to achieve in the future.  What you discover about yourself, your interests, talents and needs will help you identify and find the college that will best support and guide your journey.

This kind of college search is especially true for young women. 

While women have outnumbered and outperformed men on coeducational campuses for more than two decades, gender is one of the most potent forces shaping education.  There is ongoing debate about whether the quality of women's educational experiences is equivalent.

Yet, among all the criteria that students and their families consider in the college search process – such criteria as academic reputation, geographic location, institutional size, cost and financial aid, and social reputation – little, if any, attention is given to the unique perspective of females in the college search process, to the relationship between college choice and student success, or to the role that college plays in helping women maximize their inherent strengths.  These inherent strengths include insight and attitude, as well as a focus on relationships and comfort with diversity.

Assoc. Director Kinzie
In reporting the findings of a study that used data from the National Survey of Student Engagement ( ), NSSE Associate Director Jillian Kinzie said: "Women are more likely than men to have high aspirations for their educations, more likely to enroll in college and to stick with it until they earn a degree." 

These high hopes and diligence often deteriorate when women encounter the learning environment at many coeducational college campuses.  Kinzie described persistent “micro-inequities,” which have a damaging cumulative effect on women's self esteem and confidence.

Women's colleges offer distinctive options and notably different conditions: women-centered pedagogies, curricula, and environments that are focused on you – your education, your personal and professional development for the many different roles you will assume in life, and your advancement in the ever-changing, knowledge-based, global economy.  At women's colleges, students focus on their academic and personal growth and development. 
According to Kinzie, women at women's colleges are more engaged than women at coeducational institutions, are more likely to experience high levels of academic challenge, engage in active and collaborative learning to a higher degree, and take part in activities that provide opportunities to integrate their curricular and co-curricular experiences than their counterparts at co-educational colleges. 
Women at women's colleges tend to thrive studying subjects such as science and math – subject and career areas in which women are traditionally underrepresented.  “Students at women's colleges report greater gains of self-understanding, acquired through both singular study and through study groups,” Kinzie said. “We typically associate these skills with success, which helps explain why so many women's college graduates achieve positions of leadership in their careers.” 
Nearly every women's college offers cross registration with neighboring coeducational colleges and universities and coed classes and coed social life can be part of your women's college experience.

Recently, I asked a young woman who took me on a tour of her women's college campus to tell me what one word she would use to describe her college experience.  She thought carefully and then replied confidently, “Challenge.” 

She explained that her women's college experience had challenged and supported her to take risks, had guided her and given her the courage to navigate her way out of her comfort zone, and helped her set higher expectations for herself and achieve greater goals. 

Today's women's colleges offer vital and compelling options to consider as you undertake your important college search process.  If you are ready for the challenges and opportunities of being a woman in the 21st Century, explore the benefits that women's colleges offer.  Visit the campuses. 

Meet with students and professors, attend and participate in a class, and spend a night.  Answers to your questions about academic rigor and excellence, research and leadership opportunities, sense community, role models and mentors, campus diversity, student services and safety will help you make the right decision about the right college for YOU!