‘A moment for women’s colleges’: Smith and Mount Holyoke see spike in admissions

  • Sonya Stephens, president of Mount Holyoke College. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sonya Stephens, president of Mount Holyoke College. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sonya Stephens, president of Mount Holyoke College. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Taylor Hall, a student at Mount Holyoke College. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lauren Hirth, a student at Mount Holyoke College. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hareem Khan, a student at Mount Holyoke College. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sonya Stephens, president of Mount Holyoke College. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hareem Khan, a student at Mount Holyoke College. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Taylor Hall, a student at Mount Holyoke College. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sisters and Smith College students Tess and Isobel Abbot. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/15/2019 1:41:49 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — It has been called the “Seven Sisters’ Surge” and the “Trump Bump.” Whatever the name, the trend is clear: Over the past several years, there has been a spike in the number of students applying to women’s colleges across the country. 

Locally, over the past five years, the total number of applications to Mount Holyoke College has jumped 23.6 percent, while Smith College has seen similar growth at around 25 percent, according to the colleges.

“It’s a moment for women’s colleges,” said Audrey Smith, Smith College’s vice president for enrollment. 

However, in recent interviews with the Gazette, Smith and others added nuance to the picture. Smith, for example, pointed to the fact that highly selective colleges and universities have seen a general rise in applications in recent years. Smith College has seen increases for 11 years straight, with the number finally plateauing this year, she said.

The recent application increase at women’s colleges comes at the same time as overall enrollment declines at colleges and universities throughout the United States, causing many schools to face existential crises. 

“Those whose applications are up are seeing a continuing increase,” said Mount Holyoke College President Sonya Stephens. “Everybody’s up.”

Contributing to Mount Holyoke’s success in this difficult moment, Stephens said, are the sizable financial commitments the school has made — to financial aid packages, educational programming, and facilities. 

“If you have a $780 million endowment, you’re in a very different situation than many of the other smaller colleges,” Stephens said.

Smith College is even more wealthy, boasting an endowment approaching $2 billion. Audrey Smith pointed to the college’s ongoing $100 million re-design of Neilson Library; the opening of the $73 million science and engineering building, Ford Hall, in 2009; and the $35 million building renovation and expansion of the Brown Fine Arts Center in 2003.

“We’ve invested so much at Smith,” she said.

In addition to these attractions, both college leaders acknowledged that there is something particular about the current moment that is contributing to the success of women’s colleges.

Many Mount Holyoke students are interested in social movements, Stephens said, adding that some of the most visible leaders of those movements — from #MeToo to climate activism — are women.

“I think there’s a perception that young people generally have more agency in this moment,” Stephens said, “and that if you want that agency to be cultivated and further developed, then a women’s college is not a bad choice.”

Stephens and Smith also highlighted several other factors: the emphasis colleges like Smith and Mount Holyoke have made in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM; the large networks of influential alumnae that they boast; and supportive environments on campus. 

‘We’re coming here to learn’

Tess Abbot, a 21-year-old junior from New York City studying environmental science policy at Smith, was sitting outside in the new spring weather on Friday, eating lunch with 18-year-old Isobel Abbot. The two are sisters and fellow Smithies, and Isobel pointed to the college’s strong STEM programs as a reason she chose to attend.

“I get to do research right now, starting the first year, and I’m getting paid to do it,” Isobel said.

Both sisters appreciate how students at Smith and Mount Holyoke can attend classes across the Five College Consortium, adding to the appeal of the local women’s colleges.  

And while the idea of a women’s school was appealing to both sisters, Isobel acknowledged it’s not for everyone. Depending on the prospective students, it’s either “why they do want to come or why they don’t want to come.” Ultimately, the academics are what really drew the sisters to Smith. As Tess put it: “We’re not coming here to meet guys, we’re coming here to learn.” 

A large protest over the new Smith campus police chief took place on campus Friday just around the corner from where the Abbots were eating, underscoring the social justice component of so many students’ experiences at Smith.

In Mount Holyoke College’s dining commons last week, students gave a laundry list of reasons for why they chose to attend the school.

Lauren Hirth, a 20-year-old sophomore from New York, was excited to take English literature classes in which conversation wouldn’t be “dominated by white men,” unlike at other colleges, she said.

“I personally chose to come here for our financial aid packages,” said Taylor Hall, a 19-year-old sophomore and first-generation college student. 

Hareem Khan, 19, said she had been impressed and inspired by the alumnae network of women in her home country of Pakistan. But the biggest reason for attending Mount Holyoke, she said, has to do with her identity as a woman of color. Almost a third of Mount Holyoke’s incoming student body are students of color from the United States, and 19 percent are international students. 

At Smith this past academic year, 32 percent of the student body were students of color and 14 percent were international students.

“I realized I would be able to have very empowering conversations here,” Khan said of Mount Holyoke, “that I would not be able to have at other colleges.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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