Why are most of the colleges I'm finding for my college formerly all women's schools?
October 20, 2010 1:54 PM   Subscribe

Sarah Lawrence. Vassar. Connecticut College. Skidmore. Goucher. I don't get it.

My son is a high school senior and we're looking at colleges now. We're in New York and restricting our search to a few hours in any direction from the city. For some reason we keep landing on colleges that were women's colleges. I don't understand this and I wonder if it has something to do with me, since I'm basically finding these colleges.

One of them, Vassar, makes sense, because it was my alma mater, But then there are Skidmore, Sarah Lawrence, Connecticut College, and Goucher. (To be fair, there are also Clark and maybe Drew in N.J. )

We're definitely looking for a small liberal arts college, but it seems that, when I go to those creepy websites that tell you your "chances," if I plug in my son's grades and SATs, he gets a pretty good chance of admission at Sarah Lawrence, Conn. College, Goucher, and Skidmore (I'd say 70-75% on average at any one of those -- "Target," is what the sites say), but if we look at e.g. Wesleyan, Williams, and Amherst (which, "in my day," were considered the all-male equivalents of Vassar), we get much lower chances -- like around 45% ("Reach," they say).

(Vassar is an exception, in that his chances are lower than at the other ex-women's schools, but if he applies early decision they told us that would increase his chances by about 15% -- bringing his 50-50 up to about a 65%)

So, why is this? Are small formerly all-male east coast liberal arts colleges more selective than small formerly all-female east coast liberal arts colleges? Or is it about the individual colleges I happened to be looking at?

And...are there some formerly men's colleges we should be looking at, that are not quite as selective as Williams, etc. -- that are more the equivalent of e.g. Skidmore and Goucher?

(Trinity is one, I guess, that I've left out. Not sure why.)

All hypotheses and suggestions welcome.
posted by DMelanogaster to Education (60 answers total)
Response by poster: This:

"Why are most of the colleges I'm finding for my college formerly all women's schools?" came out strange because of a typo, but probably is also a Freudian slip at the root of the issue.
posted by DMelanogaster at 1:55 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you considered Oberlin? It's further away, but is comparable to Goucher and the like (I have a BA from Goucher, FWIW) and I think has always been co-ed. I can't think of any former all-men's colleges, but Fordham might be another option.
posted by youcancallmeal at 1:57 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Confirmation bias?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:58 PM on October 20, 2010

Also: is the implication here that you're dismissing these colleges because they were women's colleges? I can't really speak to the others, but Goucher is about 60/40% right now and getting more co-ed all the time.
posted by youcancallmeal at 1:59 PM on October 20, 2010

Eugene Lang College at the New School University in Manhattan is a great, tiny, private liberal arts college. It was never a women's college or a men's college, so it might not be what you're looking for (I'm a little confused about the criteria you're using to search for colleges), but it's worth checking out.
posted by shamash at 2:00 PM on October 20, 2010

As a very proud graduate of a women's college, I have to admit that there's something about this question that kind of icks me out, but I realize that's all me and not you, so here's my best shot at an answer.

Are small formerly all-male east coast liberal arts colleges more selective than small formerly all-female east coast liberal arts colleges?

Think about stigma. There was a lot of prestige (and difficulty, to be sure), in being the first woman to enter a formerly all-male institution. Women's colleges were founded to provide educational opportunities to women that were not otherwise available. Men had plenty of other options. Many women's colleges were perceived (rightly or wrongly) as white-glove finishing schools, and far less academically rigorous. Because of that, there was long considered to be something "off" about the men who chose to make them co-ed institutions. Thus, the gender balance has remained tipped towards women much longer. It is easier for men to gain admission to colleges that are largely skewed towards female students. Thus Vassar is considered to be more competitive than the others, because Vassar is closer to 50-50 male-female than the others. Vassar is also simply a more prestigious school than Goucher or Connecticut College, which are essentially unknown outside of the northeast.
posted by amelioration at 2:02 PM on October 20, 2010 [6 favorites]

Are small formerly all-male east coast liberal arts colleges more selective than small formerly all-female east coast liberal arts colleges?

Generally this is the case - and for many many reasons.

Spread where you are looking out a bit. What about some of the other NESCAC schools (Bates, Bowdoin, Colby)? Or other liberal arts schools in the NE? Hamilton, Colgate, Bucknell

If you are willing to consider the midwest there are lots of other good small little schools.

The thing to really watch out for at this level to me is schools for more socially minded children of the upper class as opposed to small schools the for some reason or another are slighly easier to get into then the most selective schools.
posted by JPD at 2:05 PM on October 20, 2010

Something I think is worth pointing out, but may not be directly relevant: Three of the five schools you list do not use SAT or ACT scores to determine admission for substantial numbers of applicants.
posted by gnomeloaf at 2:07 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't have any theories more sophisticated than "all male = older" and "older = more selective".

Did you look at Middlebury and Haverford? A little further afield, Davison and Wooster are very strong but perhaps have less of a name brand.

One place to start (and only to start!) is the US News rankings for Liberal Arts colleges. Don't trust the rankings, but it's a useful list to work from (and does give an idea of competitiveness). And keep in mind that some great institutions, particularly liberal arts colleges, which tend to have particularly strong opinions about pedagogy, refuse to cooperate with these ranking exercises and are not listed (e.g. Reed, OR).
posted by caek at 2:07 PM on October 20, 2010

I don't get how often you say "we" in your post. Shouldn't this be his choice? I mean, I am coming at this from the perspective of not only a first-generation college student but also only the second person in my family (and five older siblings) to graduate HIGH SCHOOL, but I researched the hell out of my prospective schools, which is how I, a first generation kid from the rust belt, ended up at Reed.

Sure, you're paying, but why is he not doing this research (seeing as you're focussing on $40k/yr tuition places and price is presumably not an issue with you)? Let him do some of the damn research and let him post his queries.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 2:08 PM on October 20, 2010 [13 favorites]

    -I have known two people who have gone to Skidmore. Both of them are dudes and they are both great people.
    -I have known one person who has gone to Williams. He is a douchenozzle.
    -Eight (christ, has it really been that long?) years ago when I was going through this process myself I applied to 12 schools. Only one was on your list, Amherst, and I got waitlisted there. (I ended up going to the University of Chicago, so factor that into your rubric however you see fit.)

I think you need to stop looking at it in terms of former-girls'-school/former-boys'-school and more in terms of name recognition. You say something like "Wesleyan, Amherst, Williams" to a stranger and they'll nod their head in acknowledgement. Say "Connecticut College, Goucher, and Drew" to someone who isn't from the the area and (sorry) but a lot of people aren't going to know what you're talking about. More recognized schools will get more applicants, so those schools need to be more choosy.

Any reason why you're sticking in one geographical area? There are a lot of similar, great schools outside of New England.
posted by phunniemee at 2:13 PM on October 20, 2010

Have you looked at Bard?
posted by mareli at 2:13 PM on October 20, 2010

Generally this is the case - and for many many reasons.

The same applies to formerly all-female Oxbridge colleges, where there are similar self-perpetuating factors, including the nagging belief among applicants, their parents and their schools that even a 50-50 current intake doesn't stop them from being "women's colleges", whatever that's supposed to mean.
posted by holgate at 2:14 PM on October 20, 2010

Response by poster: amelioration, I get the "icked out" factor. I feel it too! That's why I'm asking. It actually felt semi-taboo for me to type my question. And I think a factor in there is that after some of these colleges (like Vassar and Sarah Lawrence) became coed (Vassar started out gradually, getting a few transfer students from e.g. Williams) you started to hear that "Oh, all the men there are gay." As if, who but a gay man would want to go to a girls' school??

So it is a complicated issue, I think. (as gender generally is)

But, back to statistics... maybe when I go to these websites and I am of course saying "male" this is automatically increasing his chances at e.g. Sarah Lawrence? Because these schools are still (after 40 years or so) looking for men who will not feel that residue of stigma?

You do make a good point, though -- that the men's colleges I cited are more prestigious in general than the women's colleges I cited (except for Vassar. Although Sarah Lawrence has always had an "uppity" reputation, in a certain idiosyncratic way)

Well, one reason I'm asking is because my son is noticing that we seem to be hearing all these admissions talks beginning with, "X started out as an all-women's college," and he's wondering, "what gives?"

A valid point of inquiry, I think.

Oberlin seems too far away, I think. But who knows. Anyway, thank you.
posted by DMelanogaster at 2:15 PM on October 20, 2010

Many of these schools have a lot of trouble maintaining gender balance. They generally shoot for 50/50 male/female in their incoming classes, but lots of liberal arts colleges (especially those which used to be all women) are attracting far more very strong female applicants. (There are some speculative explanations for this floating around).
This means that these colleges give male applicants a boost, compared to female applicants with the same general profile/scores. See more information (including questions about the legality of this) here. Is it possible that your son's scores make him a strong applicant for these schools that are trying to improve their gender balance, but not for schools where male applicants don't get this "boost"?
Basically, he can get into a higher-ranked school than he otherwise would if it is a school that needs more men in its incoming class.
posted by cushie at 2:19 PM on October 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think one reason is that a lot of colleges strive for all types of diversity. I wonder if there is a lack of male applicants at these schools because they were all-female recently enough (certainly when I was college-aged-although granted that was awhile ago) that there is stigma about applying there? Perhaps, all other things being equal, male applicants to these school have a better chance of getting in? I wonder if his odds wouldn't be even better if you were from the midwest or the west coast so that he could get points for geographical as well as gender diversity. I don't think that the formerly all-male schools have the same stigma attached (plus most went coed well before Sarah Lawrence and Vassar didn't they?) so they don't have to recruit female students as actively. (basically I'm agreeing with what amelioration said about stigma).
posted by kaybdc at 2:22 PM on October 20, 2010

Response by poster: oh I'm not sure Eugene Lang is "great." (I actually taught a course there, about 15 years ago, and I've been reading up about it now too.)

What my son is looking for: a small liberal arts college with small classes and a nice sense of community with a good music department, although he might not major in music. (NYU is probably completely wrong. )

We spent a day at Goucher last week and it felt very good. Oh I forgot Hampshire -- a coed school. He liked it and it's a "target" too. (We have gone to the 40 Colleges that Change Lives website and that's been a help.)

So yeah, what he's looking for, Goucher seemed to offer, but you can't really COUNT on any of these schools, because it is all so competitive these days, so he needs to apply to a whole bunch of them. He will also apply to a couple of SUNY schools, but he's not going to get the small classes there, so that would be quite a compromise.
posted by DMelanogaster at 2:23 PM on October 20, 2010

I know one person who went to Drew, a gay dude who is currently 100k in the hole from his attendance there. I don't think sexuality has anything to do with a school's history as a woman's college, or a Methodist college, or whatever.

Is there a reason you're not looking at the SUNYs? Many of them are great schools, and freedom from debt will give you son lots of options (or, help you save for retirement).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:25 PM on October 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: cushie says:

Is it possible that your son's scores make him a strong applicant for these schools that are trying to improve their gender balance, but not for schools where male applicants don't get this "boost"?

This is what I'm thinking, yep.
posted by DMelanogaster at 2:25 PM on October 20, 2010

I would think that, speaking as a straight man myself, getting a boost on my resume to a prestigious liberal arts college, especially one with lots of smart women, would be a good thing. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

Also, I grew up next to Skidmore College and I know a few alumni. I didn't realize until today that it was once a women's college, about 40 years ago.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:26 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a graduate of Vassar yourself, your son probably has a better shot at getting in there than those websites will tell you. I also went there (I graduated about five years ago) and legacy students -- people who had at least one parent who went to Vassar, and usually grandparents/great grandparents -- were fairly common. So your son probably could get into Vassar, especially if he plays sports (in my anecdotal opinion).

Amherst, Wesleyan and Williams are all part of the "little three," an unofficial athletic conference (the "big three" are Harvard, Yale, and Princeton). I think it has more to do with the colleges you're specifically looking at than anything else. The four ex-women's schools you picked just aren't very prestigious in general; it would make more sense to compare the little three with the seven sisters -- except that out of the seven sisters, only Vassar is now co-ed, so you can't really do that.
posted by k8lin at 2:28 PM on October 20, 2010

Whoops, posted too soon. Eugene Lang is perfectly good compared to the schools you're listing--but likewise, really pricey. However, my sister went there, as did a good friend and they were happy with their experiences there. But it doesn't sound like it's what your son is after.

Hampshire is very different from most of the schools you've listed. If your son wants to go to a school like it, what about places like New College in Florida? Or St. Johns? Etc.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:29 PM on October 20, 2010

Your son probably wants to go to Kenyon.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 2:30 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: There's a lot here to respond to, but I'm laughing at your post, roomthreeseventeen, because my husband happens to be a proud Kenyon drop-out!
posted by DMelanogaster at 2:31 PM on October 20, 2010

(I'm a Kenyon drop-out as well. Two years was enough for me.)
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 2:33 PM on October 20, 2010

What does your son want to study? Fine arts, liberal arts, something science-y, what?
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:33 PM on October 20, 2010

But, back to statistics... maybe when I go to these websites and I am of course saying "male" this is automatically increasing his chances at e.g. Sarah Lawrence? Because these schools are still (after 40 years or so) looking for men who will not feel that residue of stigma?

I think that's how it started out, absolutely. However, I think now the effect is coming from the desire for gender balance within the student body that cushie points out. Which is generally about socializing and dating. Women who are interested in co-ed institutions want fairly even gender ratios, as do the males. Women have, generally, more competitive applications at these types of schools these days, which, oddly, makes it easier for men to get in when the school is trying to maintain gender ratios.

Also, there's just the simple fact that much of what is female-dominated is also devalued in much of US culture, and this affects college admission rates as well. Your son's reaction to the fact that these schools all talk about being founded as women's colleges speaks, even ever so mildly as noticing and wondering why they'd bother to mention it, to the devaluing of that history. I mean, geez, every college goes on and on about their history as though it were the most auspicious of all collegiate histories in the annals of time. It's what recruitment tours do. But who would think to comment on the fact that Williams mentions it started out as a men's school? There's nothing transgressive there, nothing to catch one's attention.

Additionally, I think that a lot of those schools point out that they were founded as women's colleges because it shows a serious dedication to education. These are schools that are so devoted to the principles of liberal education that they were founded to extend that education even to women in a time when women's education wasn't valued. It's a history to be proud of.
posted by amelioration at 2:34 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

"As if, who but a gay man would want to go to a girls' school??"

Why would a gay man want to go to a girls' school?

I can see why a straight man would be all over it, though. :)
posted by Jacqueline at 2:37 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Many women's colleges are extremely competitive, including my own alma mater, Wellesley, and our constant rival, Smith. I think this has to do with the overall ranking of the schools involved - - first tier versus very good but not top tier -- not gender. I also think your son is likely more competitive at top small colleges if you expand your geographic scope.
posted by bearwife at 2:38 PM on October 20, 2010

Ms. Vegetable would like to give a GIANT shout out to the University of Richmond. It used to be two separate schools, but they integrated a long time ago, and now the school keeps it pretty solidly 50-50. It is small, liberal arts, has fantastic summer research opportunities, and has a music program.

(Why, yes, she IS an alum, and she DID participate in those things.)

There are a number of New England transplants who cannot get over the wonderful weather in January. It may be a little farther than what you're thinking, but please give it a thought anyway. Also, the business school is apparently fantastic. And the dining facilities get high ratings every year.

Also in Virginia: Randolph Macon College, a little north of Richmond. Used to be all men, actually, is now coed. Good friend went there and had a ball. And is now a lawyer.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:27 PM on October 20, 2010

St. John's College, Annapolis might be worth considering based on the atmosphere of the other schools you've listed, though its definitely not hipster dominated as many of those schools are. It's more self-selective than anything (based on the program), but they're firm on the quality of student. Was all men but not any more. Half and half.
posted by Outis at 4:27 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I go to those creepy websites that tell you your "chances," if I plug in my son's grades and SATs, he gets a pretty good chance of admission at Sarah Lawrence, Conn. College, Goucher, and Skidmore... but if we look at e.g. Wesleyan, Williams, and Amherst (which, "in my day," were considered the all-male equivalents of Vassar), we get much lower chances.

Do you tell these creepy websites that your son is male? If so, you should reenter the data but change the sex of the applicant to female. If the results are different, you'll know that there's gender balancing going on (or has been in recent years past).

On the other hand, it possible that the formerly-all-women's schools are less selective because they have a harder time attracting either men or women. That wouldn't be surprising, though it would be disappointing.
posted by alms at 5:12 PM on October 20, 2010

I went to a formerly all-girls liberal arts college. (I don't want to identify myself too thoroughly on here but I'll say it's one that's on your list.) I'm male. I can tell you, first of all, it had basically zero impact on my experience there, and I think that as long as a school is currently co-ed, its history really shouldn't factor into your son's decision. I guess what I mean is, I don't understand the need to seek out former all-male colleges to add to his list. If he has reservations about going to an old "girls' school" for some reason, and the experience of a fairly recent grad would be helpful, he or you can feel free to memail me. My personal opinion is, take the admissions boost for being a guy and run.

That said, as far as the relative ease of getting into former women's versus former men's colleges -- I think it probably has something to do with the fact that selectivity correlates with rankings (i.e., US News), and rankings derive from prestige, and prestige dies hard. Only 40 years ago, Yale offered Vassar the opportunity to move to New Haven and merge. Though I'm sure it wasn't intended as an insult (and Vassar was Yale's Seven Sister school, of course), the offer still strikes me as evidence that Vassar was perceived, by Yale, as an institution of some secondary importance. Can you imagine, say, Brown offering to move Amherst or Williams to Providence, as if that's an offer they couldn't refuse? (clearly not an exact analogy but you get my drift.)
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 5:27 PM on October 20, 2010

Response by poster: That "invitation" by Yale happened the summer after I was accepted. Vassar answered by saying something like "we prefer to remain mistress of our own domain." (it was a sort of famous statement at the time. And that was before Seinfeld, too!)

Thank you all for your input. I will give this info to my son for his own research. (And no, we are not on the lookout for formerly male colleges. Not at ALL. I was just wondering what was going on.)
posted by DMelanogaster at 5:40 PM on October 20, 2010

When a lot of top-notch men's colleges went co-ed in the late 60s and 70s, a lot of very top women started to apply who would have otherwise gone to women's colleges. Meanwhile, the all-women's colleges that were still able to attract many top women, giving them their choice of applicants to accept remained women's colleges. The women's colleges that faced a shortfall of applicants went co-ed. Therefore, colleges that used to be all-women but went co-ed will naturally end up being less competitive top women applicants are applying to top all-women's colleges and now-coed former men-only colleges.

I'm not saying that Vassar, Sarah Lawrence, etc. are bad places to go, just that there's a reason that their admissions tends to be less competitive than places like Wesleyan. But compare Wellesley (still all women) to Wesleyan, and you'll see that both have fairly competitive admissions.

What my son is looking for: a small liberal arts college with small classes and a nice sense of community with a good music department, although he might not major in music.

It really sounds like Oberlin is a good fit here, unless you want your son to come home every weekend.
posted by deanc at 6:32 PM on October 20, 2010

The schools are probably spending money on recruiting males so they can get their M-F ratios to normal as quickly as possible so they can compete for student tuition money with the big dogs. The quicker they shed the niche reputation, no matter what niche it is, the quicker they can compete on a level playing field, perception wise.
posted by gjc at 7:07 PM on October 20, 2010

Can you imagine, say, Brown offering to move Amherst or Williams to Providence, as if that's an offer they couldn't refuse?

Brown merged with the all-women Pembroke College back in 1971. Granted, Pembroke was also in Providence and Poughkeepsie is 80 miles from New Haven, but the act of colleges going co-ed by simply absorbing or merging with a women's college was not unknown.
posted by deanc at 7:10 PM on October 20, 2010

As a straight male who went to a college that was 75-80% male, I'd also point out that from what I can tell this was unhealthy for both genders. It seriously screws up a lot of the social/dating situation. The gender on the smaller side might think "wow there will be so many people to choose from", but in reality it just creates a power imbalance in both directions (with so many men, male personalities/activities dominate; with so few women, some will 'take advantage' of the situation and hope guys accept worse treatment than they would otherwise). My gut feeling is these same issues would just happen in reverse.

Of course, if it's more like 60/40 that's probably fine.
posted by wildcrdj at 7:22 PM on October 20, 2010

I have to second Bard. I don't know exactly where it is in the rankings this year, but it definitely provides the liberal arts experience.

I get the feeling you're missing some gems in your regional search. Maybe broaden your search within the region beyond the rankings, and then your son can narrow based on other factors.
posted by freshwater at 7:35 PM on October 20, 2010

If your son has identified other, traditional liberal arts colleges where he can see himself being happy, Hampshire is not the place for him. These aren't the droids you're looking for, do not pass go, just go someplace else.

I've heard that Skidmore has a great music department.
posted by telegraph at 7:53 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Williams and Amherst are ranked more highly, and hence are more selective. (You could make a very valid case against those rankings, although they do have a definite effect on application numbers, which makes a very big difference when discussing very tiny schools that are hellbent on remaining very tiny)

Anecdotally, it's worth mentioning that Williams and Amherst were my #1 and #2, both waitlisted me, and both strung me along with a few encouraging postcards until the week after I'd started at another college, at which point they finally rejected me. I later learned that neither school had accepted students off of the waitlist in years. Transfer admissions rates were similarly dismal (From what I remember, the number of transfers to Williams has never exceeded the single digits. Occasionally, it's zero. Out of thousands of applications.)

At the time, I was told by my guidance councilor and the books/websites at the time that I was very likely to be accepted to either school. The several schools I'd ranked below Williams and Amherst in terms of desirability all rejected me outright, and I ended up attending the second to last school on my list.

If nothing else, the ranking schemes seem to favor pedigree and money. The old all-male schools have had the upper-hand here for hundreds of years, and it's unlikely to change anytime soon. Fortunately, if you care about more than a name on your resume, any of those other liberal arts schools are going to provide a great education.

Although I have to question the wisdom of Drew...it's really not even in the same league as the others you've mentioned, and Madison's pretty much the antithesis of an exciting place. Have you looked at any of Virginia's state schools? They're drivable from NY, and a much better deal than any of the private schools that make most of the shortlists of elite NY/NJ students . For some reason, people in the tri-state area are very attached to the idea of New England colleges, which are great if you've got money to burn, and want to major in the humanities.

At the end of the day, the name on your diploma isn't worth all that much unless you went to Harvard or Yale. In fact, in terms of the "prestige" factor, you may be better served by a large state school -- Penn State, Virginia Tech, and UNC all have amazing alumni connections. Try to stop fixating on the "tiny liberal arts college experience," and genuinely ask yourself what you're looking for in a college education, and where you want to be after you graduate. Although Liberal Arts schools encourage you to take a diverse range of subjects, they're damned near useless if you decide you want to study business or engineering after your first year.

Also, avoid browsing College Confidential. That place creeps me out more than almost anywhere else on the internet. And that's saying a lot.

Sorry. I'm very scatterbrained tonight. I hope this is helpful and/or coherent
posted by schmod at 7:58 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

For music and liberal arts, this very proud first-gen high school grad and women's college grad says SUNY Binghamton (small once you drill down), SUNY Oneonta (small), Hartwick (small), or SUNY Potsdam (small).
posted by jgirl at 8:13 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think it's a combination of a lot of things, most of which have been brought up in the thread so far. One thing that was briefly touched on, and I think warrants expansion, is that a number of the schools you've mentioned don't consider SAT/ACT scores during the admission process, and thus will be more likely to accept a student whose intelligence doesn't show up as clearly in standardized tests.

Expanding on this, as a Sarah Lawrence alum, I know that SLC's "non-standard" admissions policy goes beyond not looking at SATs, but extends to not having any minimum GPA or anything else quantifiable. We don't even have a typical admissions department. Instead, the faculty is more involved in looking over applications and reading essays than most other schools, and play larger role in admissions, and take pride in finding "hidden gem" students whose academic worth didn't really present itself in high school.

At least, that's what they say. I always figured it was just an excuse to not have to pay to staff an admissions department, and a natural suspicion of anyone who was good with numbers.

Since college, I've known a lot of people who went to other small, liberal arts former-women's colleges (wherever we go, we tend to find one another somehow) and gotten a similar impression of other former girls' schools' alternative admissions policies. I've always figured that this was owed to the strong progressive streak in most women's colleges, itself owing to the fact that when they were founded, educating women was a fairly progressive notion. Progressive turned to liberal, liberal turned to "artsy," artsy turned to... whatever you want to call the present peculiar balance of intellectual and cultural arrogance and a complete and indignant rejection of any way anyone has ever devised to evaluate a student's performance. (True story: at SLC, we receive letter grades, just aren't ever told what they are.)
posted by patnasty at 8:36 PM on October 20, 2010

For music: SUNY Potsdam. (on preview, like jgirl said)
posted by bendy at 8:40 PM on October 20, 2010

I went to Connecticut College, though more than 15 years ago, and while a student journalist I reported on this for the college paper and interviewed the admissions department about it. At least at that time, Conn still got more applications from women than from men. Part of that might have something to do with habit or stigma, but it also has a fair amount to do with the legacy effect - women going to the same college their mother, grandma, aunt, or mentor went to (and in generations past, that was more likely to be one of the women's colleges).

Meanwhile, Conn expressly aimed for a 50/50 gender balance and took many years after integrating in 1969 to achieve it. What that ended up meaning was that Conn could be much more selective with female candidates, and so it took top-tier candidates only, but in order to get to a 50% male enrollment the bar had to be set a little lower for the men, and they accepted more of the men in the applicant pool than women in the applicant pool. I wouldn't be surprised if that's still the case today, because not enough time has gone by for that legacy effect to wear off.

All that said, not sure why it should matter. Conn was an excellent school, and if your son gets the benefit of an education positioned a little bit above his current achievement level it might be a terrific advantage (that's presumptuous, of course - he might be in the top 1% of candidates, but in the event he's more like in the lower 15-20%, there's an argument that he's getting an educational opportunity that wouldn't be available to a female with a comparable record).

I also agree that these schools tend to have a fantastic history of student empowerment and a commitment to excellence and social change because of their history - not a bad thing to find in a school at all.
posted by Miko at 9:00 PM on October 20, 2010

Oh, and for what it's worth, I loved my time at Sarah Lawrence, and think it's a great pick for someone interested in music, but not quite ready to commit to a music program at the expense of other academic interests. Also, at the risk of sounding like I'm making a sales pitch, it also is about as close as you'll get to NYC and still have something resembling a campus life -- and, IMO, the proximity to the city is kind of key for music majors who actually want to keep connected to a living, breathing music scene. (I've heard amazing things about Oberlin program, and its academic reputation is, well, way better than SLC's, to say the least, but I've never understood why you'd want to study music so far from anywhere to actually go hear it.)

Lastly -- and I swear, I don't get any of my tuition back if I bark up more male applicants -- but I also think that Sarah Lawrence's gender ratio (75/25 when I was a student, I think closer to 60/40 now) is actually really healthy for its male students. When I'd visit friends at more traditional schools, the guys their were always obsessed with know any party's "number" -- i.e. how many girls were there -- before deciding if it was worth their time. The schools' social lives seemed to foment this really acquisitive attitude about sex + dating among its guys, as well as an obnoxious feeling of competitive hostility between guys and any male who wasn't part of their circle. At SLC, within a year, guys learned to stop counting women like so many mortgage-based derivatives (which actually might have just been due to our atrophying math skills) and instead, focus on other pursuits, like drugs. Just kidding! (Mostly.)
posted by patnasty at 9:02 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

maybe it's location? I'm from poughkeepsie, and vassar would be a tough place to go to school these days. The city of poughkeepsie is nor happenin nor very safe.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 9:09 PM on October 20, 2010

Many of the schools you mention have not been all-female in decades. All of them were co-ed when I applied to college almost 15 years ago. I really don't get why it's even a concern. Evaluate the schools based on their modern-day merits, not on which gender the school was geared to in 1930.
posted by Sara C. at 1:24 AM on October 21, 2010

Response by poster: Just a few comments:

-College Confidential is the worst, I agree

-I sort of loved Sarah Lawrence but I'm afraid that (a) there is no campus life. You HAVE to go into NYC (it felt quite "empty" to me when we went, and I have a friend who teaches there from time to time and she says "it's always like that." I don't know what that means, but it seems to go with the observation that (b) the kids don't smile (is there an "emo imperative" at SL?)

-Drew, I agree, is in another league, but we need one really safe school and I was thinking maybe that could be it. The SUNY schools can be great and certainly one could be a safe school, but it's been strongly recommended to us by various experts and we agree that my son would do much better with small classes and being known by professors from the very beginning of his college experience

-Just saying, for some more info: my son's SATs are mid-600's in math and almost 700 in CR and 720 in writing (which, sadly, doesn't seem to count as much as the M and CR). He's going to take the ACT and we'll see what happens there. His grades are excellent in a tiny private high school with lots of attention but his extracurriculars are not there at all. There is no "leadership" going on, there is no "joining." There are no sports. He is doing some lovely "community service" now at an animal shelter, but he hasn't done anything like that before this year. There is the computer and the guitar.

He's making a recording of himself playing jazz guitar. He writes songs. He plays music with his friends. He's very talented musically, but he's not classically proficient (hence, he's not a music conservatory type. This is why, unfortunately, we ruled out SUNY Purchase, which at first seemed like a fabulous idea. At SUNY Purchase, either you're in the music conversatory program or you're barely allowed to take any music courses at all. He might want to become a music teacher eventually (or become a psychotherapist (like his parents (!)). So -- this is the picture.

Therefore -- we are talking about e.g. Goucher and Clark, we are not talking about e.g. Williams or Wesleyan. That's the main point here, we need "moderately difficult". Bard, for example, is not moderately difficult. It is *very* selective. We want small classes and an atmosphere that nurtures the quirky artsy semi-introvert (who is not a depressive, however. Somebody who can be very happy and creative in the right setting where there is not too much pressure. (which I worry about with Vassar, actually))

(Vassar, as I said, he wants to give a shot because of the legacy thing. Otherwise it wouldn't be on the list at all.)

So thanks.

- and I am going to stop thinking about the stupid "gender history" of these schools, my original question
posted by DMelanogaster at 5:52 AM on October 21, 2010

This is only a tangential issue, but if your son is serious about music, often small liberal arts colleges are a poor option as they offer drastically fewer performance opportunities.

You seem to be concerned about class size and individualized attention. And while small liberal arts schools have historically cornered that particular market, this is no longer the case. With the rise of honors programs at large public universities, students are given the individualized attention and small class size of a tiny university with all the resources of a major institution.

Add to that the decreased debt load of going public v private, and you've got what I consider to be the best option in higher education available today.
posted by jph at 7:00 AM on October 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

How serious is he actually about music? There's a huge gap between "plays in a band" and "classically trained." If you want to major in music, you'll ideally want to lean toward the latter, or else seriously risk being out of your league and/or hating the coursework.

Maybe he'd be better off studying at a school that has a good music scene, and studying something that he finds to be interesting on an academic level. (Re-reading this, I get that you're in general agreement with me on this point. Music programs are tricky -- you want it to be a good program, but not to be dominated by prodigy-level career musicians. IMO, you can't make this your top criteria.)

If you're applying to a "safety" school, make it something cheap and public. Odds are, it'll also be a school with better opportunities available. Big public (and small public) schools get a completely undeserved bad rap. If he wants a good small public liberal arts school that's cheaper than the others you've mentioned, I'd throw my alma mater (William & Mary) up for consideration -- our music program's pretty decent, but the school was so chock-full of creative-minded people, that one could find a band to play in almost effortlessly. 6 hours from NYC. Not too far; not too close. Also, look at the SUNY system -- I don't know too much about it, but it's obviously worth considering.

No offense to the place, but schools like Drew offer an astonishingly poor value (and if you live in NYC, he might as well commute). Most people have a longer commute to work than that.
posted by schmod at 7:33 AM on October 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Regarding Sarah Lawrence:

I'm afraid that (a) there is no campus life. You HAVE to go into NYC (it felt quite "empty" to me when we went, and I have a friend who teaches there from time to time and she says "it's always like that." I don't know what that means, but it seems to go with the observation that (b) the kids don't smile (is there an "emo imperative" at SL?)

I'd have to disagree with both of those. SLC is what you make of it -- there are tons of on-campus activities, clubs, funding to start activities and clubs, etc.. Some students head into NYC frequently, but I happily spent four social years there while only running into the city a handful of times. And my friends and I smiled plenty, thankyouverymuch.

As for the institution's admissions practices, I find it difficult to believe that an online form would be accurate. Test scores aren't taken into account; they're looking for qualitative info, not quantitative. If your kid can write well, formulate and defend opinions, and take a self-driven approach to his education, he has a shot. (I worked in the admissions office for three years and still conduct off-campus interviews and attend prospective student events.)
posted by cranberry_nut at 10:09 AM on October 21, 2010

Take a look at McDaniel College! It's a great little high energy libreal arts scool that doesn't empty out on the weekends, but is close to both Washington DC and Baltimore.
posted by imjustsaying at 11:23 AM on October 21, 2010

I would add to cranberry_nut's advice that ALL universities are what you make of them.

I started school at Emerson, a small liberal arts school with individual attention and tiny classes which specialized in my particular interests. I hated it there, partially because I didn't do a great job of realizing I needed to be proactive about making my own social life and developing my own interests.

Then I transferred to a CUNY school, Hunter College, which is the sort of school I never in a million years would have considered my first go-round as a high school junior/senior. It's a huge and very impersonal school in the middle of Manhattan, with a reputation as a commuter school. This time, I was more on the ball about making my own college experience, and the difference was dramatic. I moved into the dorm, met a bunch of people (many of whom are still my friends years later), got involved in my academic department and in campus politics, fell in love, made art, questioned everything - basically had that classic "finding yourself" college experience that we associate with liberal arts schools. And I have no debt, since (5+ years ago) Hunter's tuition cost less than the parochial elementary school I attended.

None of this is to say that your son should be looking at different colleges - but I really don't think you realize how much of all this is going to depend on HIM, not the school itself. And less on you and your involvement with this process.
posted by Sara C. at 12:17 PM on October 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

If you're considering Drew as a safety program (which I agree, is crazycakes considering the cost), you should look into William Paterson University's music program. Willy P was my alma mater, and they often aggressively recruit from out of state (every out of state student I knew had significant financial aid) and their music program is really, really good. It's also much much much much cheaper than Drew, even for out of state students, and in an area that's a little more lively. Seriously, Madison, NJ is pretty but dull dull dull.

Having looked back at your previous questions, some of which ask questions about financial aid, I really think you should be looking at the value and cost of some of these schools.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:15 PM on October 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

(Also, William Paterson has a noted teaching program. Seriously, I probably wouldn't recommend it for anyone but future teachers or future musicians. I was neither, but there you go.)
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:18 PM on October 21, 2010

Doesn't Montclair have a good music program? Like Willy P, I probably wouldn't consider the place for many other courses of study, but I do remember them having a surprisingly great performing arts program.

I've already said it, but god, Madison is dull. I grew up 15 minutes away in a town of (much) less than 10,000 people. Even to us, Madison was a nothing town. You either want to go to a college in a big city, where there are plenty of cultural and entertainment venues, or to go to a college that's remote enough that the students are able to make their own culture and fun. Madison is seriously hurt by the fact that it's a hop, skip, and a jump away from NYC, but just far enough away that it's not a super-easy commute. Worst of both worlds.

The "make your own fun" bit really is important. Having a good "college town" is priceless -- even though Williamsburg was actually a kind of shitty college town, I was tremendously glad that the school was essentially located on a metaphorical island (but also not in the boonies). It put pressure on us to do interesting things with the resources that we had --- and we did.

posted by schmod at 8:59 PM on October 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sara C., I'm shocked to hear that Hunter has a DORM. I have to look that up.

My son actually is taking a course at Hunter right now through a great program called College Now, which is in most of the CUNY schools (college courses that have sections specifically for high school students and meet after public school hours or Saturdays.) My son is taking music theory has what he describes as an amazing, awesome teacher who is a concert pianist and also seems to love to teach these motivated high school kids.

If my son thought he could live comfortably outside of his childhood room here, I think the idea of going to a CUNY school would be much more appealing. And I have heard of the honors programs (MacCauley is what I believe it's called at CCNY).

Also interesting to hear more about Sarah Lawrence weekends. We will pursue.

By the way, we went to Clark U. in Worcester yesterday for tour/"conversation" and it seemed fabulous.

Madison seems horrible to me too. It was recommended by a friend of mine who's from New Jersey as a "sleeper" school that ought to get more attention. I also recently met somebody who's quite an excellent artist (professional, has a gallery in NYC, etc.) who is a Drew graduate. So I was thinking maybe that would be "good value".

My son is getting more into this process since my original question.

Thanks again.
posted by DMelanogaster at 4:12 PM on October 23, 2010

Madison seems horrible to me too. It was recommended by a friend of mine who's from New Jersey as a "sleeper" school that ought to get more attention. I also recently met somebody who's quite an excellent artist (professional, has a gallery in NYC, etc.) who is a Drew graduate. So I was thinking maybe that would be "good value".

The academics at Drew are all right, but seriously, the cost is completely out-of-hand, and the academics aren't so good as to justify them. Madison itself is boring and expensive--right down to the exorbitant prices at the diner next to the school. If you're interested in schools in Jersey, I'd seriously take a closer look at the state schools--William Paterson, Montclair, or even Rutgers. I think your son would have a better time academically or socially at any of those.

Frankly, gallery artists in NYC could come from just about anywhere; certainly, I've met enough who graduated from the New School, for example. Your son isn't interested in fine arts anyway, so it's a really irrelevant factor.

Best of luck to you and your son.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:20 PM on October 23, 2010

Just one more thought: there's no need to go to college right from high school. Some things you've said seem to indicate that there's not necessarily a readiness on the part of the family. I'd have been better off if I took my year off before college instead of in the middle of college, and your son might too. There are plenty of things one can do to advance one's education and training outside of college that then make decisions about colleges, and a course of study, a hundred times easier. Just a thought.
posted by Miko at 8:45 PM on October 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

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