Institutional Culture and the Advanced Degree Aspirations of Students Attending Women's Colleges

By Ridgwell, Diana M.; Creamer, Elizabeth G. | College Student Affairs Journal, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Institutional Culture and the Advanced Degree Aspirations of Students Attending Women's Colleges


Ridgwell, Diana M., Creamer, Elizabeth G., College Student Affairs Journal


Women's college culture has been found to have qualities that promote the success of women who graduate from these institutions including graduating women who are more likely to attend graduate school than women from coeducational institutions. A purposeful sample of 58 women at two Southern women's colleges were interviewed to determine how they felt their college experience had impacted their aspiration for an advanced degree. Students at the two colleges perceived different levels of institutional support for the value of advanced graduate study and found that conflicting messages about women's roles in society had a negative impact on their aspirations for an advanced degree. Findings challenge the assumption that women's colleges are alike in their commitment to women's professional advancement.

Researchers agree that while there is some room for skepticism, the majority of studies show statistically significant positive impacts of attending a women's college on satisfaction with the college experience, the development of leadership skills, educational aspirations and attainment, career aspirations, and occupational outcomes (Astin, 1977, 1993; Kuh, Shuh, & Whitt, 1991; Smith, Wolf, & Morrison, 1995; Tidball, 1980, 1986, 1989; Wolf-Wendel, 19918, 2000). Opportunities for involvement, women role models, a mission and culture that supports the learning and development of women, and strong peer relationships are among the factors in the environment of women's colleges that have a positive impact on student outcomes (Astin 1977, 1993; Kuh et al.; 1991; Smith et al.; 1995; Tidball, 1980; Wolf-Wendel, 2000). There is little research, however, that examines differences between the culture of women's colleges.

Women's colleges began to emerge in the United States during the 1830s as a means of providing women with educational opportunities. These institutions materialized primarily for the training of women to become teachers but evolved into institutions designed to give women educational opportunities comparable to those offered at men's colleges (Horowitz, 1984). Although most colleges and universities became coeducational during the 1960s, approximately 80 women's colleges committed to their original missions to provide single-sex education (Adler, 1994). Women's colleges assert that they have created a culture that has a positive impact on women's educational experiences.

Institutional culture in higher education is defined by Kuh and Whitt (1988) as

the collective mutually shaping patterns of norms, values, practices, beliefs, and assumptions that guide the behavior of individuals and groups in an institute of higher education and provide a frame of reference within which to interpret the meanings of events and actions on and off campus. (p. 127)

The women participants of this study revealed their perceptions of how aspects of institutional culture have impacted their aspirations for an advanced degree.

Although literature comparing women's colleges to coeducational institutions is abundant, literature on the between-college differences among women's colleges is limited. To date, there is little research that purposefully compares and contrasts women's colleges and their cultures. Studying women's colleges as one homogenous group may lead to generalities about women's colleges that can be misleading. It docs not provide students the information needed to make educated choices when planning to attend a single-sex institution. This study of the perceived impact of the institutional culture of women's colleges on women's aspirations contributes to the theoretical understanding of the nature of the effectiveness of women's college education and the role of institutional culture in student outcomes. Research in this area will bring higher education closer to being able to create college experiences that are beneficial to women in both coed and single-sex settings.

Institutional Culture

An intricate part of the study of the impact of college on students' lives and aspirations involves the culture of the individual institution. …

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