Sweet Briar College’s decision to close has, of course, saddened us at Hollins University. Our two colleges, while different, have enjoyed a lively rivalry for decades. The foundation of our relationship, however, has always been rooted in a strong spirit of sisterhood — and that we’ll miss.

This news will make it far too easy for some to say it’s the death knell for women’s colleges; that Sweet Briar College’s decision to close brings us one step closer to the end. But to all those who think they have a clear view of the future, don’t be too anxious to write the epitaph for women’s colleges. Here’s why.

What we know is whether it’s a large research institution, small liberal arts college, private or state university system, community college or vocational school, choice is the promise of U.S. higher education. Each type of institution allows a student to identify the right “fit,” where she or he will be most comfortable. This is what we and other women’s colleges offer: an academic environment at which women can feel comfortable and are able to excel.

There is more than anecdotal research to bolster our beliefs. Independent research has shown that a women’s college creates leaders, communicators and persuaders. Women’s colleges help students develop confidence to push back against the challenges they may face in the workplace and in life. It teaches them to take risks and be leaders in their communities and in their careers. Many women leaders who were “firsts” in their male-dominated careers graduated from women’s colleges. The first female secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, graduated from Wellesley. The first woman speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, graduated from Trinity College. You can find other “firsts” in nearly every walk of life.

As a recent Hollins alumna wrote, “I often tell people that one of the reasons I am most grateful for my women’s college education is that I expect female leadership, as opposed to being surprised by it. Having spent four years at Hollins, where a woman de facto holds every student leadership position … Hollins instilled in me great confidence in female leadership as well as a sense of duty to carry that mission forward.”

Alumnae of women’s colleges have a commitment to pay it forward. Many women’s colleges can claim some of the most loyal, engaged and dedicated alumnae in the nation. Research has shown that alumnae from women’s colleges give back more to their alma maters than other alumni. Some believe it is due to a stronger connection they feel to their undergraduate experience.

At Hollins, we have a remarkable alumnae network that is an invaluable resource for our students. The sisterhood is the “new women’s connections” countering the “old boys’ network” many of us have encountered. Our alumnae sponsored more than 70 internships on a competitive basis across the country. We will work closely with Sweet Briar in the next few months to create openings for their current students who wish to complete their degree programs in a women’s college environment. It will be up to the students to decide if Hollins or another college or university is the best fit for them.

This is a difficult time for our friends at Sweet Briar and we are truly saddened by the loss of this 114-year old institution. Co-ed and single-sex institutions alike are facing turbulent times, but we believe in the power of women’s colleges. We are committed to quality women’s undergraduate liberal arts education and coeducational graduate programs, and passionate about inspiring tomorrow’s leaders. We remain optimistic about the path that lies ahead; we are alive and well.


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Nancy Oliver Gray is the president of Hollins University. Contact her at presoffc@hollins.edu.

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