A College of Her Own: Women's Schools Thrive

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At the annual strawberry Tea in June, Radcliffe College seniors are invited to don frilly dresses and dip berries in whipped cream.

Other women's colleges, like nearby Wellesley, have old- fashioned rites of passage like "running a hoop" that once indicated who would marry first, but has now been reinvented to indicate who will be successful.

Such vestiges of the old finishing-school persona of women's colleges might seem endangered, especially at Radcliffe, one of the venerable "seven sisters" consortium of women's colleges and alma mater of Helen Keller and Gertrude Stein. With this week's announcement that Radcliffe College will cease to exist as an undergraduate institution and merge with Harvard University, the question arises: Will women's colleges make sense at the end of the millennium? Without Radcliffe, just 78 women's colleges remain today compared with 298 in 1960. But Radcliffe's evolution - and the decline in overall numbers - doesn't mean the schools are becoming museum pieces. In fact, a decade-long surge in applications and enrollment shows women's colleges undergoing a resurgence - typifying a renewed interest in "unisex" education. "Women's colleges are coming on strong," says Judith Shapiro, president of all-women Barnard College in New York. Since 1992, the number of applications has grown at 85 percent of women's colleges, estimates Jadwiga Sebrechts, president of the Women's College Coalition in Washington, an advocacy group. Total applications have jumped 30 to 40 percent over the past six years. That's a big switch from a few years ago. All-women colleges began in the US in the mid-19th century as women demanded higher education - but all-male bastions denied them admission. By the 1960s and 1970s, legislative and social pressures pushed open the doors of male colleges. Many women's colleges declared victory and became coeducational. They seemed to lose their raison d'tre, Ms. Sebrechts says - with 153 of them going co-ed. Dwindling enrollments in the 1980s hit women's colleges hard, and 30 more schools either went co-ed or closed. Then something happened. Not long after Anita Hill faced off against Clarence Thomas in hearings before an all-male congressional panel in 1991, applications to women's colleges began rising. Some say it was fallout from the 1992 "year of the woman." Others call it the "Hillary effect." Media coverage, books, and popular discussions on gender bias, date rape, and "empowerment" flooded the mainstream too. Suddenly women's colleges had a new reason for existence: preparing its graduates to thrive in a professional world dominated by old-boys clubs. "They really have become leadership factories for women," Sebrechts says. "These schools say explicitly and unabashedly that they're training grounds for women leaders." This is not just boilerplate. Numerous studies show women's colleges consistently produce a higher proportion of female math and science graduates than coeducational schools. That is helping attract a new generation of students. Little Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa., for instance, debated going co-educational in 1988, but stayed firm. In the past decade, its endowment has doubled. This spring it received 1,107 applications for 230 freshmen slots, compared with 350 applications for 100 openings a decade ago. The college draws women from 42 states eager to study neuroscience, genetic engineering, and forensics - areas still dominated by men. "We see women's education as a kind of international priority.... We are meeting a major need," says Dorothy Gulbenkian Blaney, Cedar Crest's president. …