Many people are familiar with the idea of all-girls' schools for elementary, middle, and high school, but did you know there are also women-only colleges?
In this article, we discuss what women's colleges are and why you'd want to apply to them. We'll also go over the top 17 women's colleges in the US and explain why these schools made the cut.
feature image credit: 1917 Smith College Graduation 9/23 by Richard/Flickr.
What Is a Women's College?
A women's college is a college that admits only or primarily women. Most women's colleges in the US are undergraduate-only institutions (or if they do have grad programs, those programs are not women-only).
As of 2020, all but a few colleges in the United States are co-educational (admitting students of all genders), but this is actually a fairly recent development.
For most of the country's history (up through as late as the 1960s), the vast majority of undergraduate colleges did not admit women (with exceptions like Oberlin, which was conceived as co-educational from the beginning).
The first women's colleges were formed so that women who were interested in post-high school academic education could have that option. The oldest women's college in America chartered as a degree-granting college is Wesleyan College (chartered 1836), while the oldest continuously operating women's school (now a college) in the US is Salem College (founded 1772).
180+ years of having women's colleges in the US is nothing to sneeze at, but considering that the oldest college in the US (formerly all-men) was founded 200 years earlier in 1636, women's colleges are still a relatively new phenomenon.
When more historically men's colleges started going co-ed in the 1960s and 1970s, many former women's colleges merged with or were subsumed by nearby men's schools (e.g., Pembroke into Brown) or went co-ed themselves (e.g., Vassar).
In 2020, fewer than 40 all-women's colleges remain in the US, with some schools evolving their admissions policies to be more inclusive of trans and non-binary students, while others continue to debate remaining all-female or all-women.
Still, the top women's colleges continue to thrive and keep pace with their co-ed siblings in academics, financial aid, and graduation outcomes for students. In the next section, we'll discuss why students still go to women's colleges in this day and age (and why others choose not to).
Wesleyan College. Stephen Rahn/Flickr.
Pros and Cons of Attending a Women's College
In 2020, it might seem odd that students are still interested in attending women's colleges. Indeed, for most of the distinguishing points for any given women's college (reputation, academic excellence, religious affiliation, historical importance), there are dozens of co-ed schools with the same claims to fame.
That said, as a graduate of Wellesley College, there are definitely some benefits that I got from attending a women's college that my friends who attended co-ed colleges did not get.
Pro 1: Prioritization of Women's Achievement
If you want to learn in an environment that prioritizes women's leadership and academic accomplishment, then a women's college might be the right place for you.
As a student who had attended co-ed public school up through high school, I didn't really expect this to make such a big difference. There were plenty of smart girls in my school and in advanced classes, and we even had a vice-principal who was a woman.
Going to a women's college, though, was like unlocking a new level I hadn't even known existed. Almost everyone in all of my classes was a woman. When I took humanities classes, the classes were mostly women; when I took science or math classes, the classes were also mostly women. The default non-gender-neutral pronoun used was "she/her." The majority of the professors were established academics in their field, publishing and researching and teaching—and were women. The college president and many other leadership positions were women. Our valedictorian was a woman.
Being among so many smart and talented women and seeing accomplished women in positions of leadership was both a huge confidence booster and a spur to keep pushing myself to do my best.
This effect seems to be magnified at the two historically black women's colleges, Spelman and Bennett: as one reviewer states, "[Spelman] is a campus where you are surrounded by strong and driven black women thriving in their studies."
If attending a college where the faculty and staff are generally aligned with the specific mission of supporting women students as they achieve academic excellence and take on leadership roles is important to you, then you should consider applying to a women's college.
Spelman College. US Department of Education/Flickr.
Pro 2: A Robust Alumnae Network
Finding employment opportunities after college can be as much about who you know as what you can do; if you go to a women's college, you'll definitely have a leg up in this area.
Graduates of women's colleges tend to stay connected to their alma maters and with their fellow classmates, with the result that most women's colleges have strong alumnae networks.
The benefits of being able to tap into this networks aren't just improved job prospects from having a woman on the inside (although that's definitely a plus); women's college alumnae networks can help with anything from tips for finding an apartment to opportunities to connect socially in an unfamiliar part of the world
Furthermore, women's college alumnae networks can sometimes extend beyond the boundaries of any particular school. For example, as I mention in my article on the Seven Sisters colleges, the alumnae network for each of the individual colleges can also stretch to include any of the Seven Sisters schools.
Bennett College (Greensboro, NC). UNC Libraries Commons/Flickr.
Pro 3: Higher Chance of Admission
Because the applicant pool is smaller, women's colleges tend to be less selective than comparable co-ed schools.
For instance, take a look at the four schools below:
|Name||Admissions Rate||25th-75th SAT %ile|
|Mount Holyoke College||50.9%||1290-1500|
All have comparable 25th/75th percentile SAT/ACT scores, but Mount Holyoke (a women's college) has an acceptance rate nearly 1.5-3x higher than the other three.
As I note in my article on the Seven Sisters schools, the comparatively lower selectivity of women's colleges doesn't necessarily mean they are less academically rigorous; however, it does mean that you might be able to get into a women's college more easily than to an equally academically rigorous co-ed college.
Mount Holyoke College. Jason Woodhead/Flickr.
While there are distinct benefits to applying to and attending a women's college, there are also a few downsides (although whether or not they are a downside for you depends on your specific situation). We'll go into those next.
Con 1: Smaller Schools
When it comes to undergraduate enrollment, women's colleges vary from under 300 (Cottey College and Judson College) students to around 3,300 students (St. Catherine University), with a median total enrollment of 1,048 undergraduates per women's college.
For some students, extremely small schools are a plus, but for others, attending a school where everyone knows everyone can feel suffocating or restricted.
You can relieve this to some extent by cross-registering or becoming an exchange student part of the time at other schools, but if you know from the beginning that you want a big university experience, you probably want to avoid applying to women's colleges.
Cottey College only had 277 undergraduates enrolled in 2019-2020. Oakley Originals/Flickr.
Con 2: Women's Colleges Are Unlike the "Real World"
The biggest critique bandied around about women's colleges is that they're not like the real world. The argument generally goes that going to a women's college will insulate you in a bubble and won't prepare you for the realities of non-gender-segregated employment and life.
I personally have never found this argument super persuasive—it's not like going to college in general isn't like being in a bubble, and most students won't have spent their entire life leading up to college in women-only environments.
However, it is true that if you attend a women's college, it takes more effort to interact with men and male students. You might have to cross-register for classes at another school, or join an organization that interacts with students outside of your school, or go to open social events at other schools, rather than just encountering guys in your day-to-day school life. This can be a particular sticking point for students who attended all-girls' schools before and want a change of social environment.
If part of going to college to you means having a social life with lots of guys in it, a women's college might not be for you.
Meredith College. UNC Libraries Commons/Flickr.
There's one more point about women's colleges that we wanted to mention. It's not strictly a pro or con, because depending on the student, it could be a positive or negative (or neutral), so we've left it till the end of our discussion.
Of the 31 women's colleges still operating in the US, more than half have some religious affiliation (either historical or current).
Seven (Alverno College, College of Saint Mary, Mount Mary University, Notre Dame of Maryland University, Saint Mary's College, St. Catherine University, and Trinity Washington University) are currently affiliated with the Roman Catholic church, while others have historical or current relationships with the Baptist, Methodist, Methodist Episcopal, Moravian, Presbyterian, Quaker, and United Church of Christ religions.
If you are a student to whom attending a school that aligns with your religious faith is important, then this may be a positive factor; however, if you instead want to avoid attending a school associated with a particular faith (or with any religion), you will be much more limited in which women's colleges to apply to.
The extent to which religion remains an important part of campus life varies widely among the religiously-affiliated women's college, so before crossing any school off your list (or adding it to your list), you should make sure to check student reviews of campus life.
While Bryn Mawr College was founded by members of the Society of Friends (Quakers), it "has been non-denominational for most of its history." Devin Stein/Flickr.
The 17 Best Women's Colleges in the US
In ranking the best women's colleges, we focused specifically on the quality of undergraduate programs (since most grad programs at women's colleges are co-ed). We did this by averaging and comparing rankings from the US News & World Report best colleges lists (which tend to lean on academic achievement and school reputation), Niche (which heavily favors student satisfaction), and Forbes (which has a larger focus on post-graduate success).
Below, we've created a table of the 17 best women's colleges in the US. For each school, we list admissions rate, total number of undergrads, and 25th/75th percentile ACT and SAT scores.
|Rank||School (Location)||Number of undergrads||Admission %||25th -75th SAT %ile||25th-75th ACT %ile|
|1||Wellesley College (Wellesley, MA)||2,534||19.5%||1330-1520||30-34|
|2||Barnard College (New York, NY)||2,562||13.9%||1310-1500||30-33|
|3||Scripps College (Claremont, CA)||1,048||24.2%||1300-1480||30-33|
|4||Smith College (Northampton, MA)||2,502||31.0%||1340-1520||31-34|
|5||Bryn Mawr College (Bryn Mawr, PA)||1,360||34.1%||1300-1500||28-33|
|6||Mount Holyoke College (South Hadley, MA)||2,208||50.9%||1290-1500||29-32|
|7||Saint Mary's College (Notre Dame, IN)||1,519||81.6%||1070-1280||22-28|
|8||Simmons University (Boston, MA)||1,837||60.4%||1130-1310||24-29|
|9||Agnes Scott College (Decatur, GA)||996||70.4%||1090-1320||23-29|
|10||Spelman College (Atlanta, GA)||2,171||39.3%||1080-1220||22-26|
|11||Meredith College (Raleigh, NC)||1,603||68.9%||1000-1195||20-26|
|12||St. Catherine University (St. Paul, MN)||3,283||70.1%||1040-1310||21-26|
|13||Hollins University (Roanoke, VA)||676||48.4%||1110-1295||23-28|
|14||Converse College (Spartanburg, SC)||876||60.4%||900-1140||20-26|
|15||Salem College (Winston-Salem, NC)||703||59.8%||1030-1300||20-28|
|16||Sweet Briar College (Sweet Briar, VA)||336||75.7%||990-1210||20-26|
Note: For some of these schools, anyone who identifies as female or was assigned female at birth and doesn't identify as male may apply; for others, the admissions policies are much more rigid. If you're concerned you may not qualify, you should check with the individual school as to the specifics of their policy.
Scripps College. The Marmot/Flickr.
Other Women's Colleges in the US
In addition to the 17 colleges listed above, there are currently 14 other schools in the US with all-women's undergraduate programs. Below is an alphabetical, unranked list of these colleges.
|School||Location||Number of undergrads||Admission %|
|Alverno College||Milwaukee, WI||1,219||67.1%|
|Bay Path University||Longmeadow, MA||1,924||62.9%|
|Bennett College||Greensboro, NC||500||96.3%|
|Cedar Crest College||Allentown, PA||1,323||63.3%|
|College of Saint Mary||Omaha, NE||861||52.1%|
|Columbia College||Columbia, SC||1,165||86.8%|
|Cottey College||Nevada, MO||277||45.3%|
|Judson College||Marion, AL||268||62.9%|
|Moore College of Art and Design||Philadelphia, PA||373||55.7%|
|Mount Mary University||Milwaukee, WI||726||56%|
|Notre Dame of Maryland University||Baltimore, MD||841||49.5%|
|Stephens College||Columbia, MO||550||53.6%|
|Trinity Washington University||Washington, DC||1,391||92%|
|Wesleyan College||Macon, GA||725||47.9%|
Columbia College (Columbia, SC). Boston Public Library/Flickr.
The vast majority of colleges and universities in the US are now co-educational; however, if you're interested in learning in an environment that promotes women's leadership and academic achievement, a women's college might be right for you.
For students who are interested in applying to the best women's colleges, the next step is to do some research about which women's colleges appeal to you. Consider how small a school you'll be comfortable with, where in the country you want to go to college, and what kind of financial aid you'll need.
You should also assess how your test scores and GPA match up against the profiles of the women's colleges you're interested in. An easy way to do this is to search "prepscholar [school name] admissions" and input your GPA and SAT/ACT scores into our handy admissions chances calculator to see whether a school is a safety, match, or reach school for you. We describe this process in more detail in this article.
Finally, a word of advice: when writing your personal statement for a women's college, do not use the term "all-girl's school" to talk about the college. This is not a term these schools would ever use to describe themselves, and it implies (even if you don't mean it to) that only children would attend a single-sex school. As a t-shirt sold on the Wellesley campus once said, "It's not a girl's school without men; it's a women's college without boys."
Wellesley College. edX Social Media/Flickr.
Interested in colleges that are academically challenging and all-women's? Our article on the Seven Sisters schools goes into more detail on some of the top women's colleges in the US.
Curious about what makes liberal arts schools different from other types of colleges and universities? We define what liberal arts schools are and single out the top liberal arts schools in the country here.
Figuring out where to apply to college can be overwhelming. Learn how to research colleges (including the most important factors to consider) with this article.
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Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel in high school.