At the beginning of the twenty-first century there are only two men's colleges in the United States–Wabash College in Indiana and Deep Springs in California, although there are approximately eighty women's colleges. For all intents and purposes, men's colleges seem to have outlived their function, although women's colleges continue to offer women students a worthwhile postsecondary option. Following a brief history of single-sex education for men and women, this entry explores the characteristics of women's colleges and the outcomes associated with attending these colleges. Given the small numbers of men's colleges, similar research has not been conducted on these institutions.
Single-sex colleges and universities have a long and storied history in American higher education. The original colleges in the United States, including Harvard (1636), William and Mary (1693), Yale College (1716), and the College of New Jersey at Princeton (1746), were founded to educate men only. During this era, formal educational options for women were nonexistent. It was widely believed that women were intellectually inferior to men and that educating women might lead to health problems. Because higher education in the colonial period was aimed at preparing men for the clergy and for leadership, there was no real impetus to provide higher education for women.
In the early 1800s several seminaries for women only were founded to provide girls with a liberal education, equivalent to a high school education. Graduates of these seminaries were prepared to be mothers, wives, and teachers. Women's seminaries were not immediately classified as colleges, although schools such as that founded by Emma Willard (established in 1821) modeled their curriculum, in large part, after that offered at the most prestigious men's colleges of the day. Other women-only institutions, such as those founded by Catherine Beecher and Mary Lyon, became prototypes for modern women's colleges.
There are several women-only institutions that claim to be the first "college." Georgia Female College was chartered by the state legislature in 1836; its curriculum, however, was more similar to a high school than a college. In 1853 Mary Sharp College in Tennessee was founded; its curriculum looked very similar to the four-year degree program offered at the men's colleges. Similarly, Elmira Female College in New York, chartered in 1855, offered a true collegiate course. In the early days of women's access to higher education, single-sex institutions were the norm for both men and women. By 1860 there were approximately 100 women's colleges in existence, about half of which offered a collegiate-level curriculum. Approximately 67 percent of the existing colleges and universities at this time were for men only.
By 1850 several institutions, including Oberlin, began experimenting with coeducation. The passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act after the Civil War led to the creation of land-grant institutions, all of which were coeducational. The original colonial colleges continued to operate for men only. By 1870 there were 582 colleges in the United States, of which 343 were for men only, 70 were for women only, and 169 were coeducational. By 1890 the number of men's colleges reached its peak–400 institutions. At this time, there were 465 coeducational colleges and 217 women's colleges. The bulk of the single-sex institutions for both men and women were founded in the South and Northeast. In the Midwest and West, coeducation was the norm during this era. The women's colleges in the South were widely perceived as "finishing schools" and were not taken seriously by many in higher education.
After the Civil War, the women's colleges of the Northeast, especially the Seven Sisters (Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Wellesley, Vassar, and Radcliffe), wished to demonstrate that women were as capable of achieving advanced education as were men. These institutions replicated the classical curriculum of the most elite men's colleges also located in the Northeast. Indeed, compared to other educational options for women through normal schools and coeducational institutions, the curriculum at these women's colleges focused on liberal education rather than on pre-professional programs. These women's colleges not only replicated the curriculum of the men's colleges, they also required students to meet the admission standards of the men's schools. This created enrollment problems, as few women had the necessary background in Greek and Latin. Finding qualified faculty willing to teach at these women's colleges was also a significant problem in the early days. One solution to these dilemmas was the founding of coordinate colleges,institutions that shared the faculty and curriculum of men's colleges but operated as separate institutions. These coordinate colleges, including Radcliffe, Pembroke, and Barnard, were considered women's colleges because the male and female students did not take classes together and because the institutions had different administrators. The Seven Sisters served as an enduring model of high-quality education for women.