How women’s colleges are breaking down barriers
Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley is fortunate to be home to more than a dozen institutions of higher education, and I am deeply honored to serve as president of one of them: the region’s only women’s college, which has expanded its offerings, fine-tuned its mission and cultivated a deeper and more meaningful impact on the region in recent years.
I came to Cedar Crest College in 1993, fresh out of graduate school, landing my dream job at a small liberal arts college for women. Education for women is my passion and it is in my blood. I graduated from a women’s college, Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, in 1984. My mother attended a hospital-based nursing school that graduated only women, and my grandmother was a graduate of another women’s college, Smith College in Massachusetts, in 1923, where my niece is currently a sophomore.
I grew up in a world where women filled traditional family or professional roles with many limitations. I knew I was on a different path and that to chart my own way I needed to know what was possible for women.
Bryn Mawr showed me a world of possibilities. My education there prepared me to hold my own in the male-dominated worlds of the legal profession I explored after college and ultimately academic philosophy. After receiving my doctorate in philosophy, I wanted to become part of that transformative power—to help other young women to discover their strength and voice and to explore possibilities.
The power of women’s colleges
Women’s colleges have transformed American society by placing women in positions of leadership and influence. They have produced the first generation of women leaders who worked tirelessly to open doors for women and to achieve pay parity, and broke new ground in their professional fields along the way.
What sets Cedar Crest apart is its proven willingness to transform itself—to evolve to meet the developing needs of women and society.
Women’s colleges produced the first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company (Katharine Graham, Vassar College, New York), the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (Jane Addams, Rockford Female Seminary, Illinois), the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (Pearl Buck, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Virginia).
They also produced the first woman president of Harvard (Drew Gilpin Faust, Bryn Mawr College), the first woman speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi, Trinity College, Washington, D.C.), the first woman secretary of state (Madeleine Albright, Wellesley College, Massachusetts), the first woman vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket (Geraldine Ferraro, Marymount Manhattan College, New York), and the first women from a major party to run for president of the United States (Hillary Clinton, Wellesley College).
The possibility that we at Cedar Crest can clearly see and work every day to actualize is parity for women in today’s global world. The power that educating women has to expand the world’s possibilities are significant. It has been proven that educating women and girls is the engine for the health and prosperity of a nation. Where women and girls are educated, the GDP of a nation increases, mortality decreases and violence decreases.
In the United States, we lag the developed world in terms of parity for women. We are one of four nations that do not guarantee paid leave for new mothers, and as of 2015, we ranked 65th in the world in terms of wage equality for similar work, according to the World Economic Forum. Women’s colleges are an important part of the drive for gender equity.
I believe in the power and relevance of women’s colleges. What sets Cedar Crest apart is its proven willingness to transform itself—to evolve to meet the developing needs of women and society.
Meeting student needs
For over a century and a half, Cedar Crest has been at the forefront of education, uniquely able to look beyond the urgencies of the moment to anticipate the needs of future generations. The visionary decision in 1867 to offer young women a three-year course of study in the liberal arts was prompted by the view that women could achieve more than society traditionally expected.
After our first 100 years, we opened our doors to women who had not had the opportunity to go to college right after high school, continuing our core mission to provide access to education to those otherwise denied it. This innovation came under the leadership of the college’s first woman president, Pauline Tompkins, and evolved into the Office of Lifelong Learning and eventually into our thriving School of Adult and Graduate Education, which today is about half of our total student population.
Last year, as I contemplated the first year of my presidency, I was struck by how much has changed since I arrived as a faculty member here 25 years ago and by the enormous progress we have made in that time. While the freshman class and total number of full-time faculty are about the same as they were in 1993, the composition has changed significantly.
Between 1993 and 2017, the number of white students pursuing a four-year degree in the United States increased 38%. In that same time frame, the number of Hispanic students pursuing a four-year degree increased 266% and the number of African American students increased 114%. At Cedar Crest, we have embraced the growing diversity of our student population. In 1993, when I arrived, only 4% of our student population were students of color. Today, that number has grown to 38%.
We have been evolving to meet the needs of our more diverse population, as we have evolved to meet the needs of a more diverse society. As Cedar Crest embraces new opportunities to meet the needs of traditional students and of our adult and graduate students, we are also working to diversify our faculty.
Four strategies for student success
My colleagues and I seek out new ways to address the enormous financial burden that often accompanies the rewards of a college education. We are working to find even more ways to ensure our students are able to persist to graduation. This work includes:
- Expanding access, increasing affordability: Our STAR (State Tuition Access Rate) program guarantees our high-achieving applicants will pay no more than the tuition of their state’s flagship public institution, making a liberal arts education available at a public university price. We have also worked with our local community colleges to ensure that students who have earned an associate degree can transfer all of their credits and complete their degree affordably with special scholarships we have made available.
Offering travel abroad opportunities—without cost: Cedar Crest’s Carmen Twillie Ambar Sophomore Expedition program, an annual study abroad opportunity for all sophomores is one example of how we are innovating in women’s higher education—and leveling the playing field for first-generation women students in the global economy. We believe all students should have the opportunity to travel abroad, regardless of income. The Sophomore Expedition takes away that financial barrier to allow our students to gain new perspectives on the world as they experience international travel. In its first few years, the program has proven to be a transformative experience for students and encourages them to consider other study-abroad or international internship opportunities in the future. It is free and open to all sophomore students in good standing at Cedar Crest. Through the Sophomore Expedition, our students learn about another culture, but they also learn about themselves. This global experience is often transformational, and can open a student’s eyes to possibilities they didn’t know existed.
Building résumés, portfolios: The Sophomore Expedition is part of Cedar Crest nEXt, an initiative integrating the students’ classroom curriculum into their career planning. Developed as part of our college’s new strategic plan, Cedar Crest nEXt helps students prepare for life after college by building an e-portfolio. Students earn badges along the way, and can show the portfolio to potential employers or grad schools to better illustrate both their accomplishments and potential. This approach helps students perceive the link between their varied curricular and cocurricular experiences and what an employer would value on a résumé.
- Providing work study for all: While work-study jobs have been available to students in need on America’s college campuses for decades, Cedar Crest guarantees every student a job on campus—up to 20 hours a week—through the Student Employment Center, launched in 2017. Interested students are matched with positions that align with their majors and professional goals whenever possible, so in many cases, they will graduate and enter the job market already having experience in their intended career field. They also attend career development seminars each semester to help them gain the soft skills sought by employers.
We are remaking the vision of a women’s liberal arts college by breaking down barriers between curriculum, student activities and employment into an integrated educational experience that prepares our students for life and work in the 21st century. It is our mission to be an academic home and a place of quality teaching and learning for our students, whether they come from local cities and towns or from far away. We are more confident than ever in our programs and our positive impact on women, and in our commitment—every day—to be the kind of institution that demonstrates to the world the value of a private liberal arts education.
Elizabeth Meade is president of Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.