The House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (LHHS) passed its annual appropriations bill on July 15. With the leadership of Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, vice chair of the House Subcommittee on LHHS, report language was included to bolster the remaining women’s colleges and universities in the country. This is the first time that women’s colleges have been noted in such a way in proposed federal legislation.
The committee recognized the long-time role the nation's women's colleges and universities play in advancing postsecondary diversity and inclusion for underserved populations while creating unique educational opportunities to empower women. Importantly, the committee directed the Department of Education to detail the challenges that women’s colleges and universities face and recommend how federal resources may be allocated to ensure their resilience.
“This congressional action finally begins to recognize the unique value and asset that are women’s colleges and it comes at an absolutely pivotal time for women in America,” says Emerald Archer, PhD, executive director for the Women’s College Coalition (WCC). “This legislative language not only puts every possibility of federal relief on the table for consideration within the next budget cycle, but also puts forth the ‘macro’ issue of the need for the government to play a role in supporting women's colleges given their unique role within American higher education,” adds Archer, who also serves as the director for the Center for the Advancement of Women at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles.
This congressional action comes amid the backdrop of a dramatic increase in women leaving post-secondary studies and the workforce as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. Women’s colleges and universities have often faced federal underfunding, despite educating historically underserved populations. Eighty percent of students at women’s colleges receive financial aid, forty-eight percent are eligible for Pell grants, and nearly half are students of color.
“We are deeply grateful for the significant leadership of Congresswoman Roybal-Allard. She is a long-time champion of women’s advancement and empowerment,” says Ann McElaney-Johnson, PhD, president of Mount Saint Mary’s and board chair of the Women’s College Coalition. “Our communities and our nation can't afford to lose women’s colleges, which are vital and unique assets for incubating women leaders. This action in Congress is an important first step to help women bounce back from the ‘She-session’ and chart a new course for the education and advancement of women and girls in our nation.”
Understanding the role of women’s colleges today requires some reflection on the history of American higher education. Women's colleges were founded during the mid- and late-19th century in response to a need for advanced education for women at a time when they were not admitted to most institutions of higher education. Fifty years ago, 230 women’s colleges and universities thrived across the United States; today, fewer than 40 remain.
“Women’s colleges and universities were founded to provide women with the education and experiences that they would not otherwise have been able to access,” says Roybal-Allard. “Today, these institutions hold an important key to our future and maintain their important role in higher education. I am grateful that the Department of Education will provide information and recommendations to protect these institutions.”
The Women’s College Coalition, the association that represents 37 women’s universities and colleges in the United States and Canada, has been advocating for these institutions as a sector for federal support over the past year. WCC is a convener and a leading advocate for women’s educational institutions, facilitating best practices to ensure that women’s colleges and universities continue to thrive.