New wave of women's colleges rises

Students from women's colleges worldwide are descending on the idyllic Massachusetts campus of Mount Holyoke College this week for a meeting where America's oldest women's college will welcome the newest members of a movement it helped inspire.

As their numbers decline in the U.S., women's colleges are booming in much of the developing world. They've become a tool for jump-starting economic growth and political development, and for helping break down barriers in the same way their U.S. counterparts have been doing since the 19th century.

U.S. women's colleges have sometimes struggled to find a new role in the era of coeducation. One that some are embracing is to mentor the new wave of women's institutions. The leadership conference at Mount Holyoke's South Hadley campus is part of a growing collaboration.

“If you educate a woman, you have educated the whole world,” said Elleen Mazorodze, a student at the Women's University in Africa, a 6-year-old institution trying to keep its feet in tumultuous Zimbabwe, and one of the students at the conference.

Her arguments echo those of experts who believe the returns on educating women in developing countries are higher than those on educating men – though there is still much debate about whether more primary education or colleges should be the priority.

Women's colleges began appearing in the United States in the 19th century, when women had few avenues to education, and when many thought that's the way it should be.

“You have, 150 years later in these developing countries, a very similar situation,” said Patti McGill Peterson, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, and the former president of Wells College, a women's school in New York. But as college access and the value in educating women become clear, “Suddenly people say, ‘How can we do that?'”

In the U.S., the number of women's colleges has declined from well over 200 to about 60.

Overseas, women's colleges have existed for decades in Asian countries like Japan and India. But experts say the number trying to emulate the American model is growing rapidly – though the trend is hard to quantify, given varying definitions of what constitutes a college.

Among those emerging in recent years are Zimbabwe's Women's University in Africa, the Kiriri Women's University of Science and Technology in Kenya, and Effat College in Saudi Arabia. Pakistan and Dubai also have made a big push.