As Vassar students, I’m sure most are well acquainted with the question, “Isn’t that an all girls’ school?” And while many greet the question, understandably, with exasperation–Vassar College has been coed since 1969–I find the misconception flattering, if mildly irritating.
Although much of the United States believes all-female institutions to be outdated–haven’t women been “liberated” since the 1920s?–the reality of women’s colleges is drastically different. Women’s schools are associated with socioeconomic success across racial and class boundaries, an increased likelihood of women holding leadership roles after graduation and higher rates of pursuing postgraduate education.
Although Vassar is no longer an all-women’s school, I strongly believe that the need for women’s colleges still exists in the United States.
A recent study conducted by UCLA professor Linda Sax shows that women’s colleges have the highest percentages of low-income students, first-generation and African-American students (Higher Education Research Institute, “Completing College: Assessing Graduation Rates at Four-Year Institutions,” 2011). While in theory, all institutions have the capacity to enroll a diverse range of students, in practice, most graduating classes are heavily white and middle- to upper-class; Until this changes, it is important that all-women’s schools continue to lead by example.
While it is true–to an extent–that colleges and universities throughout the United States are focusing more and more on diversity, women’s schools tend to go a step further: instead of simply enrolling a diverse student body, all-women’s colleges are more likely to help these students succeed. While a large racial gap in completion persists at academic institutions nationwide, many women’s colleges are working to close this gap. Smith College, for example, holds events and financial aid information sessions specifically intended for first-generation students throughout their four years at the school. The Office of Diversity and Campus Engagement at Sarah Lawrence, meanwhile, provides mediation support for students dealing with issues related to prejudice and exclusion, and plans and funds programs and events throughout the year centering on social justice and diversity. The U.S. Department of Education asserts that in 2012, while the graduation rate in six years or less for white students was 68 percent, only 44 percent of African-American students received a diploma in the same amount of time (The Washington Post, “Women have already achieved educational equality. But women’s colleges still matter,” 06.24.2015).
Reports from the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, meanwhile, confirm that women’s colleges boast higher rates: Smith College, for instance, had an 87 percent graduation rate for African-American students, with Mount Holyoke and Bryn Mawr close behind at 82 percent and 76 percent, respectively (The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, “Black Student College Graduation Rates Remain Low, But Modest Progress Begins to Show”).
While women’s colleges are intended to foster acceptance and welcome diversity, this is not always the case: In recent years, many women’s colleges have been under fire for refusing to admit students who are not “legally” female (The New York Times, “Who are Women’s Colleges For?” 05.25.2015). Mount Holyoke President Lynn Pasquerella asserts, “At a women’s college, we have to have some criterion for admission. In addition to academic excellence, it’s being a woman.”
The recent Title IX ruling protecting transgender students from discrimination has forced women’s schools to publicly confront their prejudices. Although Title IX has technically protected students from sex discrimination since 1972, it was not until 2014 that the U.S. Department of Education specified that the legislation’s prohibition against sex discrimination extends to bias based on gender identity. Some states have since added their own laws offering more specific protections, such as asserting the right of transgender students to participate in sports teams based on gender identity, regardless of the gender on a birth certificate.
Most women’s colleges require that all documents submitted as part of a student’s application record the student’s gender as female. Most states require documentation of sex-reassignment surgery in order to change gender on a birth certificate, which is complicated by the fact that most doctors will not perform this surgery on anyone under age 18. Changing gender on a U.S. passport requires proof of clinical treatment. In order to amend the gender listed on a driver’s license, some states only ask for a doctor’s note, while others require proof of surgery. These technicalities make it nearly impossible for transgender applicants to meet the stringent requirements of a significant portion of women’s schools.
A handful of colleges, including Barnard and Wellesley, have changed their admissions policies to be accepting of a larger range of gender identities Mount Holyoke is to date, however, one of the only schools to allow anyone “except those who were born male and identify as male” to apply (The Wall Street Journal, “The Transgender Challenge for Women’s Colleges,” 07.17.2015).
Even colleges whose policies are typically considered liberal, both internally and externally, such as Vassar, could learn from Mount Holyoke’s approach to fostering acceptance of transgender students. President Lynn Pasquerella asserts, “Students can’t indicate in advance their preferences regarding a roommate’s gender identity. That would be discriminatory” (The Wall Street Journal).
The school, instead, handles roommate conflicts on a case-by-case basis. For instance, one Muslim student objected to rooming with a trans man on the grounds of religious beliefs; the school eventually separated the roommates, satisfying both parties,
Vassar would certainly benefit from reconsidering its housing policies, which currently allow students to decide beforehand whether or not they are comfortable rooming with a student whose gender identity differs from their own.
Dean Spade of Barnard College recognizes the cruciality of the full inclusion of transgender women at women’s colleges. He connects the exclusion of transgender students from women’s colleges to the systematic rejection of minorities, such as black women and lesbian women, from such schools throughout history, asserting, “This is just another one of those moments” (The New York Times).
Even once colleges change their admission policies to reflect the commitment to inclusion which most women’s schools claim to value, the struggle to end discrimination against trans individuals within women’s colleges still is not over. The Smith College website, for instance, specifies that they have no control over how outside organizations, such as the NCAA, define “woman.” Therefore, even once a trans woman is admitted to a school such as Smith, she most likely will not have full access to sports and other aspects of student life.
The number of women’s colleges in the United States has fallen from over 200 in 1960 to 46. The extremely limited options for those who feel that the environment of an all-women’s school is necessary for them to thrive makes it all the more crucial for the few remaining institutions to pave the way for more general acceptance of transgender students and of educational equality overall. As a previously all-female college and a current Seven Sister, it is more crucial than ever for Vassar to show its solidarity with women’s colleges.