By Hughes, Lynn
Momentum , Vol. 39, No. 1
Catholic women's colleges have gained a reputation for the distinctive impact they have had in women's careers and personal lives
Catholic secondary schools have long been recognized for their distinctiveness, and single-sex Catholic high schools can be credited for helping create this reputation. Studies have shown that there are measurable benefits to a young woman's intellectual, spiritual and personal development when she attends a single-sex Catholic high school, and those benefits are proven to continue even after graduation.
Similarly, Catholic women's colleges have gained a reputation for the distinctive impact they have had in women's careers and personal lives.
Authors Tracy Schier and Cynthia Russett in "Catholic Women's Colleges in America" (2002) depict a rich history that has established the benefits of these schools. Women's colleges were founded during the mid- and late-19th century in response to a need for higher education for women. At the time, women were not admitted to colleges and universities, and upper middle class and wealthy families wanted to assure that their daughters received a meaningful, faith-based, advanced education.
After the turn of the century, as the Roman Catholic population increased dramatically, there was a proliferation of women's Catholic colleges. By the mid-20th century, half of all Catholic colleges and well over half of all women's colleges were Catholic women's institutions.
Today, all formerly all-male Catholic colleges have become coeducational, most of the women's Catholic colleges and universities have become coed and, over the last couple of decades, a few women's Catholic colleges have closed. However, the 17 Catholic women's colleges in the United States that remain are recognized for graduating strong student leaders who are prepared to make a significant difference in society today.
Against the Norm
Many studies have shown that students at women's colleges pursue leadership roles more than women at coeducational institutions, and they tend to participate more in extra-curricular activities. In addition, a study by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research (IUCPR) indicated that women's colleges support high levels of student-faculty interaction, which leads to positive educational differences for their students. Graduates of women's colleges also are more likely to "go against the norm" and choose traditionally maledominated careers such as math and science.
"While national statistics indicate that fewer than 5 percent of women nationwide indicate a preference for attending a women's college, our staff reminds Catholic educators that they should keep Catholic women's colleges on a family's 'radar screen,'" said Dan Meyer, vice president of enrollment at St. Mary's College of Notre Dame, Indiana. "It is only by visiting our campus that prospective students truly experience what makes women's education so unique. Sit in on a class on any of our campuses and you will see that we challenge our students more. They have greater one-on-one interaction with professors and they have more opportunities for more meaningful dialogue. In short, we create the ideal learning environment for women to excel."
Students also find a distinctiveness of women's spirituality at Catholic women's colleges. As women continue to grow as a powerful entity in the Catholic Church, the experience that students find at Catholic women's colleges can be life changing.
In October 2006, several students and alumnae from Saint Mary-of-the-Wood College (SMWC) in Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, traveled to Rome for the canonization of the college's foundress, Saint Mother Theodore Guerin. For Samantha Dumm, a junior at SMWC with a preveterinary major and an equine science minor, the trip had an impact on her spirituality and her connection to the college.
"Seeing the history of the Catholic Church in the buildings and ruins was great, and listening to the Mass and the pope talk was incredible," Dumm said. …